By Kyle Kersey
With sitting board member Mark Hanna retiring at the end of his term, the election for a seat on Pima Community College’s Board of Governors is a race between former Arizona state legislator Ethan Orr and retired naval officer Catherine Ripley.
Governing Board members are elected in a non-partisan election, which means that you won’t see a “D” or an “R” next to the candidates’ name on the ballot. However, the two have represented opposite sides of the political spectrum in the past.
Orr served as a Republican representative from district 9 in the Arizona state legislature from 2013 through 2015. During his tenure, he said he worked across the aisle to secure $50 million in education funding to the Tucson community, and managed to sneak in $8 million to finish the Phoenix biomedical campus on consent. While working at UArizona, he got $8 million to start the new College of Veterinary Sciences. He has also taught at Pima and UArizona, the latter of which is where he currently works as the Assistant Vice President for Government Partnerships and Community Relations.
“Not only am I saying I want to do it, I’ve done it,” he said about securing funding for Pima. “I know how to do it. And I think that’s the difference. I’ve actually gone into the budget. I’ve actually built the relationships. I’ve actually got the money for us.”
Ripley, on the other hand, served as the Executive Director of the Pima County Democratic Party for a year and has been an adjunct professor at PCC since fall of 2016. She is a retired naval officer, spent time as a diplomat, serving as a Defense and Naval Attaché and Chief of Defense Cooperation at U.S Embassies in Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles, and Mauritius and The Hague. She was also the International Business Development Executive for Raytheon. She believes her diplomatic experience will enable her to work together with the other board members to solve problems.
“On day one, my highest priority is to get to know the other board members,” she said. “You need to know your team.”
Decrease in Student Enrollment
Both candidates cite the decrease in student enrollment as the biggest challenge facing the future of PCC.
Both want to see the college partner with local high schools as they believe the college should serve the local community first, with Orr supporting recruiting students as young as 7th grade. He said when UArizona partnered with the Sunnyside School District to recruit their students, year to year enrollment from Sunnyside High School increased by 75%, while it increased from fellow district school Desert View by 43%.
Orr believes that a major selling point to prospective students is that Pima provides a better education than UArizona for lower level courses. “Having taught at both institutions, for your lower division classes, I think you’re getting a better education at Pima,” he said. “Frankly, the teachers you get are more passionate and you get smaller class sizes.”
Ripley supports reaching out to second chancers, those who skipped college out of high school. Ripley said that Pima’s Centers for Excellence are a good tool for making Pima more attractive to prospective students, as well as business interests, and that local students who go to Pima are more likely to stay in Tucson and give back to the community.
Ripley also said she wants to see the college provide assistance to local students with the application process and helping them get through their first year at Pima, which she described as the hardest year.
Orr also wants the college to partner with local businesses and the Workforce Investment Board to go after adult learners, as well as change the rules to allow students to earn their GED concurrently with vocational training.
Additionally, Orr wants to develop a dual enrollment program with UArizona, in which students would be formally accepted into the university and have access to many of the same resources UArizona offers while attending Pima.
Cost of College
Both candidates view the rising cost of college for Pima students as one of the main concerns of their campaigns, as tuition at PCC has steadily risen over the past decade.
Ripley believes the solution is simple: if the enrollment increases, then the tuition doesn’t have to and, in fact, might even be reduced. She would also support a tuition free model in the future.
Orr supports reducing the cost of college, but told the Arizona Daily Star that he doesn’t support moving Pima towards a free system unless there was an alternative to replace the funding from tuition. “I think if you offer something for free that takes someone’s time and you haven’t created an alternative to replace that funding first, you can diminish the value.”
Both believe that the cost of textbooks has become unreasonably expensive. Ripley wants to look into where grant money and scholarship money is going in order to find out how to help students pay for their textbooks. She also wants to look at how community college’s across the state and across the nation handle the issue.
Orr, along with other UArizona professors, is currently in the process of writing a free textbook and said many professors are willing to do the same for the benefit of students nationwide. Orr also said he would work with Pima Foundation and the Community Foundation to form a stronger scholarship system. He also singled out course fees as an unnecessary hidden cost that further burdens students financially, especially since FAFSA funding often doesn’t apply to them, and would like to eliminate them wherever possible.
Both candidates support Proposition 481, which would raise the amount of tax revenue PCC is allowed to spend per year by $11 million, though it would not raise taxes. The current expenditure limit was set during the 1979-1980 fiscal year.
Both want to make sure that, if Proposition 208 is passed, the college gets its share of the revenue.
Ripley plans to use her connections from her time as the Executive Director of the Pima County Democratic Party to lobby the state legislature for funding. “Most states in the country give state funding for community colleges,” she said. “We get none.”
Orr has a similar plan: he said he wants to create a statewide coalition to restore the $8 million in baseline funding into the state budget. He said his connections from his time in the legislature, as well as his experience working with the budget in the past, will help him accomplish this goal.
In the wake of the cancellation of PCC’s football team, both candidates said they will work to avoid cutting school programs, such as athletics and the arts.
“I believe strongly in a liberal education, in humanities. And I believe strongly in athletics,” Ripley said. “To truly stick to definition of a community college, we need to work as hard as we can to not cut any of those course offerings.”
Orr was adamant that no more sports programs be cut. “This is something that can be aspirational for local students,” he said. “Why shouldn’t someone have the ability to play at the collegiate level?”
Both said they would look elsewhere if cuts need to be made. Ripley said she would “go through the budget with a fine tooth comb, line item by line item, to not cut athletics, and definitely not cut music and art.” Orr brought up selling the college’s downtown administrative building as a possible alternative to cutting existing programs.
Covid-19 and In-Person Learning
Orr wants to return to limited in-person learning as soon as possible “in the limits of science and good public policy,” citing the unseen costs of closing down, like the rise in drug use and suicides, as well as many losing a year of college. He supports the hybrid model being adopted by local school districts, and would require masks and social distancing while on campus.
Ripley disagrees with opening in the near future. She believes that until there is strong indication that there’s going to be a vaccine, it’s not safe to return to in-class learning. Until then, she said she would stick with online learning, citing how young people can still suffer and even die from the disease, and the unknown long-term risks. “Until we can be safe, every step we move forward, we’ll take two steps back.”
Approval of Chancellor Lee Lambert
Pima Community College’s Chancellor is elected by the Board of Governors. Both generally approve of the job Chancellor Lee Lambert has done after the tumultuous tenure of prior Chancellor Roy Flores, who faced sexual harassment allegations.
Ripley cited the positive change in morale campus wide and the diversity of the student body as evidence of the Chancellor’s success. “He took a very broken, crippled administration from the Flores regime and turned it around,” she said. “I loved seeing a diverse environment of DACA students. 55% of our students are minorities, 55% are women. It made me feel proud to teach there.”
Orr said the Chancellor has helped stabilize the college after it was almost stripped of accreditation. “If students are graduating and actually getting employed or transferring to UArizona and we’re doing this in an affordable and appropriate manner, then I think the chancellor is doing a great job. If that starts to break down, then I think the chancellor is doing a terrible job.”
Both Catherine Ripley and Ethan Orr are more than qualified to be elected to the Governing Board. Both agree on many of the key issues facing Pima Community College. Both support Proposition 481. Both want to avoid cutting extracurricular programs. Both want to secure more state funding and both have the connections to get it done. While it would be easy to view this as just another two party election given their backgrounds but, given their lack of disagreement on the issues, the reality is more nuanced than that.
More than anything, the two campaigns are separated by their approach. Ripley’s platform centers around her diplomatic abilities to introduce productive dialogue between board members and to problem solve on the fly. Orr’s platform is more detail-oriented, ready with budget numbers and specific goals that are no doubt adopted from his time in the state legislature. They’re also separated through their response to Covid-19: Orr wants to begin hybrid in-person learning as soon as possible, Ripley doesn’t believe it’s safe to return until a vaccine arrives. These key differences are what voters will have to consider when the time comes to cast their ballots.