The Department of Labor, which runs the Job Corps program, initially cited a leaky cafeteria roof and faulty fire alarms as the top reasons for the closure. The federal government has long been aware of those conditions, however, but failed to provide the center with funds for repairs, according to multiple reports, inspections and annual assessments conducted in recent years.
“We’ve always turned it in and said ‘We need this, we need that,’ but they haven’t given us the money,” said Danny Muse, the education director at the Oconaluftee Job Corps Center.
U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, toured the center and spoke to staff last week about efforts to get it reopened. Shuler alluded the closure could be motivated by money — trying to save money, that is. Three brand-new Job Corps centers are being opened elsewhere in the country this spring.
“We don’t want them to cut the budget here to pay for new facilities somewhere else,” Shuler told staff.
Oconaluftee is one of 122 Job Corps Centers nationwide. The center offers a second shot in life for at-risk young people, allowing them to earn their GED and train for specific trades.
Michael Volpe, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor in D.C., said the closure of this Job Corps had nothing to do with opening new centers.
Shuler has been lobbying the powers that be in Washington to get the Job Corps Center reopened. At stake are 70 jobs from teachers to dorm supervisors. Larry Blythe, vice-chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, equated the shut down to a small plant closure.
“We all know the importance of it,” Shuler said during a tour of the Job Corps site last week. “We are going to continue to work as hard as we possibly can. I may be a freshman but I’m going to make sure I’m heard very loudly on this.”
While Department of Labor runs the Job Corps program, the National Park Service is responsible for daily operations at this particular center, since it is located inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Department of Labor and the National Park Service are each blaming the other for the problems and the failure to fix them. It is counterproductive, Shuler said.
“They can blame each other all they want. All we want is to get our facility back open,” Shuler said. “We don’t need to look into the rear view mirror to move forward.”
Shuler said he managed to get the two agencies to sit down and talk about how to move forward.
“I’m not here to point any fingers at anyone,” Shuler told the local Job Corps staff when he visited the center last week. “We have to move forward and the way to do that is to work together. We can’t be on the defensive. We have to be on the offense.”
The staff is still on board for now, even though the students have been shipped out. Many staff members are contract employees and will be paid until their contract runs out in June. Employees don’t know whether they should start looking for new jobs or not.
“We want to expedite this so people don’t have to worry about finding other jobs,” Shuler said.
The Department of Labor said the closure is temporary while repairs are made, but staff members are skeptical. Reasons given for closing the center seem blown out of proportion, Muse said.
For example, a crew already had been hired to fix the broken fire alarms and was about to start work when the center was shut down three weeks ago.
The national director of Job Corps, Esther Johnson, also cited mold in the cafeteria as a result of the chronically leaky roof. But a mold specialist hired by the Department of Labor to inspect the premises two weeks ago found otherwise.
“There are no air quality issues, no mold, nothing,” said Marcus Robinson, maintenance director. “We got back a 30 page report. Everything came back safe.”
Another flaw cited by Johnson to justify the shut-down was catches on the windows in men’s dorm rooms that keep the windows from opening all the way. Johnson referred to them as bars on the windows and called them a fire hazard. But they are actually thin aluminum rods in the window frame that serve as a catch and could be taken off with a Phillip’s screw driver in a couple of hours instead of closing down the facility. Another flaw cited was curtains in lieu of doors on the individual women’s dorm rooms. The dorm rooms are too small to accommodate doors that open in, and the halls are too narrow to accommodate doors that open out. The dorm would likely have to be remodeled to add doors, but no money to do so has been provided.
While the facility short-comings were initially cited as reasons for the temporary closure, the Department of Labor now says the program was not up to par either.
“Students at the center received neither adequate safety and security, nor the quality of resources, service and leadership demanded by a Job Corps program. Our paramount goal is to provide Job Corps students with quality training in a safe and nurturing environment,” Volpe said.
Volpe said “it was in the best interest of the students to temporarily close the Oconaluftee Center.” The decision was based on facility inspection by the Inspector General of the Department of Labor, site visits by national Job Corps staff and interviews with students, Volpe said.