Eastern Oregon Community College to end prisoner education program, cut 17 jobs

City says 7,000 summer jobs are available for Boston youth ages 14 to 18

Two years ago, Blue Mountain Community College teamed up with other colleges across the state to convince the Oregon Department of Corrections to continue college adult education and GED programs in the state’s prisons. In a special meeting last week, the BMCC Board of Education voted to end their programs at the direction of the college president.

The move resulted in 17 staff being laid off at a school that has been battered by staff cuts in recent years. It is now unclear who will provide education in a region that holds thousands of state prisoners.

In a joint statement from the Department of Corrections and the state Higher Education Coordinating Commission, the agencies said they are looking into ways to continue offering those programs without interruption once the contract ends on June 30. It did not specify who would undertake these tasks.

The latest round of layoffs has put BMCC faculty and ranked unions once again at odds with the administration, which argues that GED corrections and adult education programs are not aligned with the college’s future.

“I believe that as an industry, as a higher education industry, we have a moral obligation to provide as many educational opportunities as possible for all members of our community, whether they serve time or not,” BMCC President Mark Browning told the board. “We don’t have to do everything for everyone, every day, all the time. We simply don’t have that ability.”

Browning recommended to the board dropping the college’s GED and adult education programs at state prisons in Pendleton, Umatilla, and Baker City in favor of entering the “credit arena.” Under the newly revived US Department of Education programInmates can take lower-level undergraduate courses in subjects such as reading, history, and mathematics by receiving federal Pell scholarships.

Browning said he hoped laid-off staff would return to BMCC to teach for the new credit program, but the college had not yet applied for eligibility and he didn’t know how many jobs it would create.

Browning also made a financial argument. When the Oregon Department of Corrections wanted to end all of its community college contracts and take its educational offerings internally in 2024, the legislature stepped in and made the Higher Education Coordinating Committee the intermediary between the DOC and the community colleges that offer classes behind bars.

The legislature offered additional one-time funds to the colleges as part of the deal, but Browning said lawmakers have no appetite for renewing the funding. Without an additional source of income, Browning said, running the programs would cost more than the state paid through contract.

When the board gave the employees the chance to speak, everyone voiced their opposition to the cuts.

Dulcie Hayes, a veteran teacher at Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla, told the board that staff were “surprised” by the cuts because until the meeting was announced, staff thought the contract was still being negotiated.

“I think I speak for many of us when I say we are deeply saddened that this contract and this program mean nothing more to BMCC,” she said.

Browning disputed the accounts of Hayes and the other staff, saying that the college administration had notified the union leaders a few days before the meeting.

The BMCC Board of Directors has approved layoffs and job cuts four years in a row. When the college announced plans to eliminate 10 positions in 2024, the BMCC faculty union organized a public rally to persuade the college to reverse course. The college eventually reduced the number of cuts from 10 to fivebut the cuts are still moving forward.

The BMCC has attributed the layoffs to statewide trends such as the general swoon in community college enrollments, and local factors such as increased competition from other colleges in eastern Oregon and southeastern Washington. Union leaders argued that less staff meant fewer educational programs, which would ultimately further hurt enrollment.

Staff at the special meeting told the board that what students in prisons wanted to see was a program that integrated both GED courses and college classes.

“How many incarcerated adults now have GED and can apply for a Pell Scholarship for inmates? said Sasha McKeown, president of the BMCC Faculty Association. “If we let this decade lapse, we’ll trade (full-time positions) now for a fraction of that down the road. “

The arguments were not enough to sway a majority of the board of directors, as only one voted against the layoff plan.

The cuts come as the legislature takes action on bills aimed at expanding access to community colleges in state prisons. The Oregon Capital Chronicle reported The Senate passed two bills this month that would allow community colleges to offer more academic programs in state prisons and require the prison system to work more closely with the Higher Education Coordinating Committee on prison education policy. Neither law includes additional funding for prison education.