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Gillette College

CEO Of Gillette College Hired And Fired On Same Day

in News/Gillette

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By RJ Morgan, County 17 

Janell Oberlander has been fired from her role as Vice President and CEO of Gillette College by the Northern Wyoming Community College District (NWCCD).

The news came mere hours after she was appointed interim president of the newly established Gillette Community College District following a closed-door session at a special meeting of the Board of Trustees.

The surprise vote made for a joyous morning for the then-vice president. But, by the end of the day, the emotions turned to confusion after she was informed by the NWCCD that she was relieved of her duties effective at the end of the month.

That bit of important news was not delivered in person or via a phone call. It was a separation notice that was sent from NWCCD and received by email.

“It really was the next step in the development of the GCCD,” Oberlander said. “It wasn’t personal, and we are certainly moving forward with the work needed to stand up an independent community college district.”

NWCCD can’t make any public comment on the separation because it is a personnel matter. Requests for a copy of the email were not returned.

Oberlander has been part of the NWCCD administrative team for the three years.  As the GCCD’s interim president, she assumes the leading role in working to forge a memorandum of understanding with her former coworkers at Sheridan College and the NWCCD board.

GCCD Chairperson Robert Palmer said Friday he has been working with NWCCD Chairperson Debra Wendtland to coordinate a joint workshop Oct. 23 with both boards and administrators to initiate work on the continued transition process from a satellite campus under NWCCD to an independent community college district which was approved by voters at the special election in November.

Oberlander confirmed Wednesday that a time and location remains undecided.

The splitting of the districts got a little messier with this decision as local administrators now communicate with NWCCD officials, according to multiple staff members at Sheridan College. In addition, Oberlander’s NWCCD contact information was removed when contacted by County 17 via internet and phone and directed to other staff members late Wednesday.

This sudden decision to part with Oberlander will also cause some immediate financial decisions as she will only be paid by NWCCD through the end of this month. Her salary, which was $120,000 last year according to govsalaries.com, was budgeted into the $1.05M preliminary budget.

The revenue source of those funds has yet to be determined.

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Campbell County Voters Approve Creation Of New Community College

in News/Gillette

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Campbell County voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved the creation of a new community college within the county’s borders.

According to unofficial results from Tuesday’s special election, 4,160 people voted for the creation of a new Gillette Community College District and tax levy to support it, while 1,724 voted against it.

For 51 years, a satellite campus of Sheridan College has operated in Gillette. Last year, supporters of the idea to create an independent college in Gillette won approval to pursue the idea in the Legislature, which passed legislation during its general session earlier this year allowing the creation of the district.

The new district’s creation was opposed by officials from the Northern Wyoming Community College District, which controls both the Sheridan and Gillette colleges, who said it would reduce the amount of money available for Sheridan College.

Officials have said it could be several years before the Gillette College can be completely independent of the Sheridan College.

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Gillette College Bill Passes Senate, Advances To House

in News/Gillette

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By Ryan Lewallen, County 17

An amended bill allowing for the formation of a local community college district has passed three readings in the Senate, despite a Sheridan senator’s call for the measure to die on the floor.

Senate File (SF0083) now moves into the House where it will need to pass three readings before it advances to the desk of Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon to be signed into law.

The bill passed the senate with 20 votes in favor of the measure and 10 against, but not before it was subject to amendment to address a potential funding shortfall for Sheridan College should Gillette College break away under its own district.

That shortfall could be as much as $3.5 million, according to a February letter sent to the legislature by Dr. Walter Tribley, NWCCD president, which included a request that the increase its funding to Sheridan College to cover it.

The bill now includes a provision enabling the Northern Wyoming Community College District (NWCCD) to collect state funding for both colleges until the new district is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, which could take up to five years, according to Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette).

Another amendment to adjust the name of the new district failed to pass, meaning the name will remain the Gillette College Community College District for the time being.

The approved amendment, however, is the solution devised by Wasserburger and Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester) to address the funding issue raised by Sheridan College leadership.

That collaboration, however, is simply not enough to overcome hardships that could affect not only Sheridan College, but every community college in Wyoming should the measure pass the legislature, according to Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan), who advocated against adding another college district March 2.

“I’m happy for the compromise,” Kinskey said. “But this bill still needs to die.”

The State of Wyoming cannot fund the seven community college districts it has now, he continued, the discussion should be about reducing the number of college districts to five instead of increasing them to eight.

Kinskey’s statement was based on a finding from a 2010 task force appointed by the State Senate to assess the viability of Wyoming’s community colleges.

The task force was charged with identifying a more streamlined and uniform approach to mill levies to realistically fund the state’s community colleges, according to Kinskey.

“That job has been hijacked by the discussion of the creation of an eighth district,” Kinskey said, adding his concern that allowing the formation of a college district that will fund itself, as opposed to paying into and receiving state funding, would be detrimental to the current community college system in Wyoming.

Kinskey voiced concerns that SF0083 would set the stage for further legislation that would remove the four-mill levy standard required by state statute for community college districts to receive state funding.

“If that changes, that really upends our funding system,” Kinskey said, further adding his belief that the issue surrounded Gillette College has resulted from the cancellation of college sports programs.

“Would we be here today if the (NWCCD Board of Trustees) had not eliminated sports?” Kinskey asked the Senate. “Is that a reason to create an eighth community college district because they’re mad sports were eliminated? I’m mad too, I’m mad over the economic situation of the State of Wyoming. But when you’re mad, you don’t do your best thinking.”

Wasserburger opposed Kinskey’s assertions that the bill would result in financial strain for Wyoming community colleges, referencing an independent study conducted after the Campbell County Board of Commissioners first sent the request for the formation of an independent college district in Gillette to the Legislature.

“What they said was- Gillette College would be a net positive for all community colleges in our state,” Wasserburger said. “That was their independent finding.”

The formation of the Gillette College District would save the Wyoming Community College Commission (WCCC) around $6.1 million, money that would be reallocated back into every community college in the state, according to Wasserburger.

That realization, Wasserburger continued, resulted in the WCCC, the one body that he could say for certain are the experts in all issues relating to higher education, passing the measure seven votes to zero.

The issue surrounding a new college district in Gillette has never been about sports, Wasserburger noted, but has always been about the division of power between Gillette College and Sheridan College.

Right now, Wasserburger said, the NWCCD Board of Trustees has seven members, all of whom are from Sheridan County. Gillette College’s only representation to the board is public attendees and the chair of the Gillette College Advisory Board.

That skew in power became readily apparent when, during the decision to cut sports programs at Gillette College, the NWCCD Board of Trustees declined to allow the college to fund its own sports programs with private funding totaling $525,000, according to Wasserburger.

“What College do you know of in America that doesn’t take a half a million dollars?” Wasserburger asked.

He said that it is the right of the people of Campbell County to govern decisions at their local college and to decide for themselves if they want to pay for an independent community college district.

“It is the one community college out there with the highest assessed valuation that is going to pay for itself,” Wasserburger said.

Currently, Campbell County’s assessed valuation for Fiscal Year 2021 is $4.24 billion, but that is expected to fall by millions of dollars next fiscal year with the decline in the coal industry. Should that assessed valuation fall even further in the coming years, that could mean the state will need to step in and fund the district, according to concerns voiced by Senate Vice President Larry Hicks (R-Baggs).

““I don’t know what the future is. But I know that it’s pretty grim financially and I know it’s tough on coal,” Hicks said. “We have these battles and we’re going to fight for Campbell County, but I don’t know if this is the right time right now to take this on.”

But that isn’t any reason to deny the people of Campbell County the right to form their own, locally funded college district, according to Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper).

“Yes, the coal industry is in trouble. But (Campbell County) has tremendous oil and gas production as well,” Scott said. “They have a lot of resources there. They can, I think for the foreseeable future, support the college.”

He said that if the citizens of Campbell County want to compose their own college district and pay for it themselves, then it’s only fair the legislature allow them to do so.  

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Trade sector could use displaced coal miners, officials say

in Energy/Economic development/News

By Seneca Flowers, Cowboy State Daily

Business and government leaders around the Wyoming are scrambling to make sure Wyoming workers remain Wyoming workers as the jobs in the coal industry subside.

In 2016, nearly 7 percent of the state workforce was employed in the extractive energy sector, which includes coal, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. But with Blackjewel’s recent layoff of nearly 600 people, the state will feel the shockwaves on multiple fronts. The immediate issue is figuring out how to re-employ displaced workers. The good news is skilled trade workers are in more demand than many may think, according to some officials around the state.

Rick Mansheim, manager for state Workforce Centers in Gillette and Newcastle, has been in the front lines of trying to get the miners back to work. He said he has heard that more than 100 miners may have found new jobs, but his organization has no way to know the exact number.

“We have a whole gamut of training we can do,” Mansheim said. 

He said that some of the Blackjewel employees are taking commercial driver’s license and other college classes. He added that in the past, his offices have also been able to help people into the nursing and welding fields.

After Blackjewel’s two mines closed, the Gillette and Newcastle Workforce Centers held information sessions at the Gillette College Technical Education Center that attracted more than 300 people from the mines. The centers also held career fairs with employers from the region that attracted nearly 500 job seekers.

Help wanted in the trades

Mansheim said many companies heard of the layoffs and reached out to him directly looking to fill the void of trade workers.

State Rep. Mike Greear, R-Gillette, said the state needs more trade workers. Greear is the co-chair of the Legislature’s Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee and also the president and CEO of Wyoming Sugar.

As a CEO, Greear said he cannot recruit skilled workers. They just aren’t there. So he must develop and continuously look for them. He said he has heard similar stories from other businesses in the state.

“I think it is an unintended consequence of the Hathaway (scholarship) program, which is a wonderful program,” Greear said.

He said many young people have chosen to pursue a college education rather than enter the trade sector.

As a company president, he is soliciting high school students and offering them trade jobs with possible future opportunities that include welding or machinist certifications for those who would like to remain in their communities.

But he can only do so much as a business leader. As a state leader, he is also limited.

“The Legislature can do good things—it can set policy, it can help guide us over some bumpy roads, but in the end, it’s got to be up to the industry to be able to attract them,” Greear said. “The government can’t do everything for everyone.”

The disappearing coal job

For those workers who want to remain in their communities, finding coal jobs is going to be more difficult as the industry slows and transforms.

Economist Rob Godby, director for the University of Wyoming’s Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy, doesn’t see coal magically rebounding anytime soon because technology and the free market will naturally reduce coal’s demand.

“Coal is in real decline,” Godby said. “The (Blackjewel) bankruptcy this summer has demonstrated how disruptive that can be.”

Godby said he expects renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to become the dominant providers of energy in the future because of policy changes with climate change and technological advances that make renewable energy production more efficient.

Greear acknowledged renewables are part of an overall portfolio for energy, but they are often erroneously blamed for the decreasing coal demand.

“The real driver of coal moving out of being the more attractive option is low natural gas prices—plain and simple,” Greear said. 

He added that as coal’s share of energy production has declined, the share provided by renewable energy has increased. But renewables have revealed some reliability issues, according to Greear, so he sees natural gas as a more stable source of energy.

Godby said technology is to blame for cheaper natural gas, which he calls “the largest factor to coal’s decline.”

In addition, Godby said technological advances in natural gas production and renewable energy production have caused coal to lose its market share prominence. The impact will not likely reverse, he said.

“You can’t put those technologies back…you can’t put those genies in a bottle,” Godby said. “Once they are invented, they are really hard to forget. Technological progress happens all the time. It’s disruptive, and old technologies are replaced by new ones.

“Nobody’s building the coal-fired power plants,” Godby continued. “So eventually they are going to age out, be retired. And they are not being replaced with other coal-fired power plants.” 

Diminished local dollars from coal

Fewer coal-fired plants mean less revenue for the state and towns.

Coal production in Wyoming has declined 22.6 percent in last five years, 29.7 percent in last the 10 years, and 34.8 percent since its booming peak of 2008, according to the Wyoming Mining Association.

Coal is the second largest source of tax revenue to state and local governments, according to the WMA, with about $1 billion in tax revenue paid every year.

But the reality is that coal may not always be able to pay the bulk of the government’s bills—at least not in its current state.

Greear said state and local governments have some time to prepare for a downturn in revenues.

While coal-fired plants are shutting down, supply projections suggest production of 240 million to 260 million tons for the next 10 years.

Although Greear expects a slow, steady decline in production, he doesn’t count coal out of Wyoming’s revenue stream entirely.

Greear said there is demand for Powder River Basin coal among some Asian countries. However, efforts to build coal terminals in Washington that would allow shipments to Asian countries have failed.

Godby said even if the terminals were built, they wouldn’t likely be a long-term solution to the coal industry’s woes and may just prolong its demise.

He added even though a prolonged death may still be economically beneficial to the state in the short-term basis, the long-term outlook may not be positive.

“It’s far from guaranteed that the developing world is going to stick to coal for quite a while,” Godby said. “It is also the case that countries like China and others are turning to renewables and natural gas much more quickly than people expected.”

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