GILLETTE — The effort to create a new college district in Campbell County officially has opposition from an existing college district.
The Eastern Wyoming College Board of Trustees approved a resolution opposing the formation of the district this week, said chairman Bob Baumgartner.
During a public hearing Wednesday night, Baumgartner said Gillette College’s application does nothing to show that it will offer any unique programs or services that aren’t already offered at other community colleges in the state.
And with Campbell County’s assessed valuation expected to continue to drop, Baumgartner said he expects Gillette College to rely even more on state funding, “diminishing the share on an already inadequate source of funding.”
According to the Western Interstate Commission of Higher Education, which is conducting a needs assessment survey, the number of high school graduates, both in Wyoming and nationwide, is projected to drop in 2026 due to the slowdown in birth rate during the Great Recession.
“The need for an additional community college is decreasing, not increasing,” Baumgartner said.
The Eastern Wyoming College board “definitely opposes” the formation of the district, he said, adding that if it goes through, it will “further weaken every existing community college” in Wyoming.
Baumgartner made the comments over Zoom during a public hearing at Central Wyoming College in Riverton on Wednesday night.
It was the second of two public hearings held by the Wyoming Community College Commission, which has 90 days from Sept. 1 to decide whether to approve Campbell County’s application to create a new community college district.
The first public hearing, held Saturday at the Gillette College Pronghorn Center, saw many people come forward in support of the new district. A number of those same people made the trip to Riverton on Wednesday to speak again.
This time around, there were a few more naysayers.
Lesley Travers, president of Eastern Wyoming College, questioned the timing of Campbell County’s efforts to form its own district. With the state making deep budget cuts, including eliminating services for the disabled and elderly, “this is the wrong time for Campbell County to pursue a new district,” she said.
“We hope the commission does not support it at this time,” she said.
If the commission does approve Campbell County’s application, it will then go before the state Legislature. If it clears that hurdle, then it will go before the voters of Campbell County, who will decide whether they want to tax themselves to give the college a sustainable source of funding.
State Rep.-elect Bill Fortner, R-Gillette, reminded the commission that Campbell County’s health is a barometer for the entire state.
“When Campbell County does good, the state of Wyoming does good,” he said. “If you pass 4 mills on industry, Campbell County’s not going to do very good anymore.”
The Gillette College Foundation has raised millions of dollars for the school. Dave Horning, the organization’s president, said the foundation’s success is an indication that Gillette College does have the community’s support.
It shouldn’t be up to the commission to decide whether Campbell County’s voters are knowledgeable enough on whether they want to support the college, he added.
“Campbell County has earned the right to make the decision whether it should become its own district,” he said.
Fortner said that when the people of Campbell County are educated on the issue, they will oppose the mill levy.
“All we’ve got to do is educate them, and I’m pretty good at that,” he said.
Gillette College Advisory Board Chairman Robert Palmer agreed that education will be key.
“We have to educate our community, let them know how important our college is,” he said.
There hasn’t been a new college district formed in Wyoming since 1968. Things have changed since then, said state Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette.
“Fifty-two years ago, Gillette had 1,500 people. It’s a town of 30,000 now,” he said. “Things have changed. We have to change as a result of that.”
Gillette resident Sue Knesel said Sheridan County and Campbell County are two very different communities, and therefore their colleges need to be governed by different boards.
Responding to Baumgartner’s comment that Gillette College doesn’t offer anything new, Knesel said that is because the school is not in its own district. If it were, it would be better able to make decisions for its community and add programs as industries evolve.
Adrian Gerrits, a member of the Campbell County Health Board of Trustees, said the hospital works closely with Gillette College, especially with its nursing program. More than half of CCH’s nursing staff is from the college, he said, and the retention rate for those nurses are much higher than those recruited from out of town.
As health care evolves and a nursing shortage continues, it’s vital that Gillette College adds programs to keep up. Gerrits said there have been talks about future programs, including one for medical billing and coding.
Gillette already has a college campus that rivals almost all other campuses in the state, he said, but “what we’re truly lacking is the ability to raise our own funds.”
“Stop looking at it from your view,” Wasserburger told the commission. “Stop looking at it by how it’s going to impact my college and look at it from the viewpoint of, is Gillette College ready to be its own separate community college district?
“When you look at all the facts, I think there’s only one answer, and that answer is it is.”
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