The 70 workers at Job Corps learned of the closure abruptly when top brass from Washington and Atlanta rolled into town Thursday morning and announced the closure, citing rundown and unsafe buildings on the campus.
“I asked myself ‘Would I want my child attending this Job Corps Center?’” said Esther Johnson, the national Job Corps director. “These are not the kind of conditions we want our young people in Job Corps to be subjected to.”
Johnson cited mold on walls, deplorable bathrooms, the lack of fire alarms in some buildings and a chronically leaking roof in the cafeteria as justification for closing the center. Johnson also didn’t like curtains strung across the doorways of girls’ dorm rooms instead of real doors.
Johnson exonerated the local staff, however.
“They have been as helpless as you have been,” Johnson told students during a campus-wide assembly.
The center housed 180 students on average who came to Job Corps for a second shot in life by earning a GED and training for specific trades. The Oconaluftee Job Corps Center, located outside Cherokee in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is one of 122 Job Corps sites nationwide.
Staff at the Job Corps Center had been complaining about the run-down facility for years and repeatedly asked for repair money, but to no avail. The shutdown, however, came as a shock.
“All of this came about very quick without any forward warning to our management staff on campus,” said Danny Muse, director of educational services at the Job Corps Center. “We are talking about the livelihoods of 70 staff here.”
Johnson pledged that the Center would be reopened after upgrades to the facility are made, but that it could take up to a year. This didn’t make sense to employees. Why close a center down, lay off the staff and ship away the students just to fix a roof, put doors on dorm rooms and get fire alarms installed?
“If they identified all the problems, why didn’t they just give us the money to fix it?” asked Linda Fowler, a dorm supervisor who lives in Swain County.
Students asked the same questions.
“They knew these things were like this. Why didn’t they do something sooner?” asked Jeanette Maynard, an 18-year-old from Fayetteville.
Janice Faus, the head cafeteria cook, said she has taken various officials and inspectors on tours of water damage in the cafeteria caused by a leaky roof at least a dozen times in the past five years.
“The water pours in beside the deep fat fryer. It comes in through the ventilation system,” Faus said.
Those who manage the site locally can’t fix the problems without money allotted by the government to do so, and that’s what’s been lacking, Muse said.
“We report it and it goes up the ladder from there,” Muse said.
“There’s been designated funds to fix these deficiencies in the past, but as far as the money actually getting here, we haven’t seen it.”
Muse questioned whether the repairs warranted a shutdown now when things have been like this for years but ignored.
“From my personal standpoint, I don’t think they are as severe as they are blown up to be,” Muse said. “The ends don’t meet.”
The cafeteria roof has leaked for 15 years, according to staff and annual reports dating back to 1994.
Word leaked out late Wednesday evening that Job Corps officials were arriving the next morning to shut the center down. Leaders of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Swain County officials and aides to Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, acted quickly to arrange a show of force at the center for the following morning. The coalition of local leaders hoped to preserve the 70 jobs the center provided, including teachers, dorm supervisors, cafeteria cooks and managers. Their lobbying efforts proved unsuccessful, however, despite an hour-long meeting with the national Job Corps officials.
Cherokee Chief Michell Hicks said the sudden and swift nature of the closure didn’t give local stakeholders an opportunity to respond.
“There are concerns about the secrecy of how this was handled,” Hicks said. “You can see our frustration with how this decision came about.”
Randy Flack, a spokesperson for Shuler, said Shuler would do what he could to stop it.
“Our congressman does have some questions about the legality of what’s going on here,” Flack told employees during a staff assembly last week. “I’m not going to lie to you. We may not be able to stop it, but we’re going to do everything we can.”
There are federal guidelines that must be followed when a Job Corps Center is shut down: notify the public, notify private entities with contracts to staff the center, and notify the Congressmen from that district.
“Obviously, none of those three things occurred,” Hicks said.
The Department of Labor insists the closure is only temporary, not permanent, and therefore they didn’t have to comply with the guidelines. Hicks questioned whether the shutdown was billed as a temporary closure in order to side-step the guidelines, but will eventually prove permanent.
Staff were also suspicious of that. In a meeting with staff last week, Johnson, the national director, told employees they would get severance packages. That didn’t sound very temporary.
“This isn’t temporary. It’s going to be permanent,” challenged Rosalie Rowell, a staff nurse. “This is a bunch of bull.”
It’s unclear how long the closure was being batted around in Washington. Two weeks before the closure, a halt was placed on new students coming to the center. Typically, new students arrive on a weekly basis to replace those who have either graduated or been sent home for acting up.
The day before the announcement, letters were sent to parents explaining their child would be transferred to a new Job Corps Center.