Salt Lake Community College may or may not close the Tooele Skills Center, a branch program that trains disadvantaged people for jobs, and it has become a matter of concern for county leaders.
"We have the highest unemployment in the state. Why would they close this center and expect our people to drive 40 miles to get this training?" said Rep. James Gowans, D-Tooele. The Skills Center program receives some $4 million in state funding and also gets some support from federal employment programs. It was absorbed by SLCC when the community college was created and helps meet its applied technology mission.
"We were told earlier that we would be closing," said Vonadean McFarland, the center director, "but we haven't heard a word from anyone since." That is making it difficult for her and her small staff and for students who use the facility, many of them low-income or nontraditional students training later in life or changing career directions. The program can accommodate up to 18 students at a time. They enroll at any time and leave when they have completed their courses, McFarland said.
Don Porter, SLCC vice president for business services, would not confirm that the Tooele Center would be closed. In a formal statement he said that "as budgets continue to tighten and our student body continues to grow, we have to seek ways to serve the most people at the lowest cost. We're looking at a number of options such as changing our hours, reducing the number of satellite locations and reviewing underperforming programs. As decisions are made, we'll announce them to the community."
During the recent legislative session, SLCC president Lynn Cundiff told the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee that the college is looking at options to meet financial challenges. The community college may feel even more pressure as the University of Utah limits enrollment this fall.
The Tooele Center employees are feeling very "betwixt and between," said McFarland. She said students at the center have been told it is closing, "and they are very concerned."
McFarland believes the small center may be feeling the effects of some educational politics in the area. The Skills Center shares leased space with Utah State University, which provides some lower division courses for college students, Gowans said. For some time, there has been discussion about the possibility of SLCC undertaking that role, Gowans said, but USU has not seemed eager to give it up, and a decision has been delayed. The Logan university serves community campuses in several areas of the state.
McFarland said she was told the Tooele center was being axed because of poor performance. But Linda Fife, assistant commissioner for programs in the office of the Commissioner for Higher Education and a former Skills Center employee, said the Tooele program has been very effective, particularly in preparing office information systems workers.
Some students have written letters saying they will not be able to continue their training because they lack transportation or time to go to the SLCC campus in Salt Lake City.
Gowans said he thinks there is a lot of concern in the community at the prospect of losing an educational opportunity. "I'm trying to get answers, and I definitely will oppose it," he said.