DOT leader advocates for SCC road while serving on college board

A new $12 million entrance road for Southwestern Community College got preference over other road projects in the region in recent years, partly thanks to support from the right friends in the right places.

Conrad Burrell, the chairman of the SCC board of trustees, advocated for the road not merely as a representative of the college, but also from inside the N.C. Department of Transportation. For more than a decade, Burrell has simultaneously served on the SCC board and as this region’s representative on the N.C. Board of Transportation, which holds sway over what roads get built.

Burrell holds one of 14 coveted seats on the state DOT board. His position allowed him to steer what road construction in a 10-county area from Haywood west.

Burrell three times voted to give the road funding during state DOT board meetings. The road has received $680,000 since 2007 for planning and design. Construction is slated to start the second half of next year.

Burrell’s support of the project did not legally constitute a conflict of interest, however. Under state law, a conflict of interest exists only when a public official or their immediate family member stands to benefit financially. In this case, Burrell is not paid to serve on the SCC board, nor does he gain financially from the new road.

At every DOT board meeting, board members sign a statement that reads: “I do not have any financial, professional or other economic interests in any of the projects being presented on the Board of Transportation meeting agenda.”

In an ethics training workshop for DOT board members in February, Burrell said he specifically asked about this issue.

“From the legal standpoint there is not a conflict and I am not benefiting from anything,” Burrell said.

Burrell said he began to wonder about it after the SCC board recently named a new building in his honor. The new entrance road will lead past the doorstep of the $8 million building bearing Burrell’s name.

Norma Houston, a public law expert with the UNC School of Government, led the ethics workshop.

“I remember him being very concerned about whether it was a conflict of interest,” Houston said, adding she was impressed that he asked.

“Did he somehow use his position of office as a DOT board member to help secure funding for the new road that would benefit the college?” Houston said. “Under the state ethic act, that is not a violation because there is no personal gain.”

The most he may have gained was his name on a building, which he may have gotten anyway. At a recent groundbreaking for the building, fellow college trustees praised Burrell for his contributions to the college, specifically citing his role in securing a new entrance road for the campus.

Houston said those in public positions still have to be concerned about the appearance of conflict, even if it doesn’t meet the legal definition.

“The question I always pose back is when the law doesn’t clearly say ‘no’ and you are left with the question ‘should you still do it?’” Houston said.

That’s when Houston recommends a little soul searching.

“Would he still have advocated for this project, would it be good for the community and good for the college, even if he didn’t serve on the board? That helps frame the individual’s thoughts on the ethics side of the discussion,” Houston said.

In this case, Burrell says he would. The college currently has only one road in and out, and if something happened to block that road, students could be stranded on the hillside campus.

“Even if I hadn’t been on the college board, I think this is absolutely a safety issue,” Burrell said.

Jack Debnam, the chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, has questioned whether a new entrance road for SCC is that important compared to other road needs. Debnam met with DOT officials last week to share his concerns and learn more about the new road.

“I told them this whole thing stinks so bad I can’t hardly stand to stay in the room,” Debnam recounted. “I told them I was going to do everything in my power to stop them.”

Burrell has served on the DOT board for 10 years. His current term expired in January. He is willing to be reappointed for another term, he said, but the governor has not yet taken action.


Making the grade

DOT board members used to have great leeway in deciding what roads got built in their respective geographic areas. In fact, that was the primary role of the DOT board.

“We relied on them to tell us what was important in the division,” said Van Argabright, the western manager for the transportation planning. “The priorities were in their head, so to speak.”

In 2007, the state moved toward a more formal and objective method of ranking road construction. Projects are now graded on a point system. Local leaders are asked for input, which in turn earns points for a project.

“But back then you didn’t have a way to score,” Argabright said. Thus the power lay almost entirely with the DOT board members.

The SCC interchange landed on the state’s priority list in 2007, just before the new system was implemented. So there was nothing unusual about Burrell, being the region’s DOT board member, asking for a project to be funded even if he had a personal interest in it.

Argabright said the SCC entrance road seems like a valid priority.

“It certainly seems to me trying to help a community college is a pretty good thing,” Argabright said.

The new SCC entrance road isn’t the only project DOT has pursued in recent years that benefits the community college. A new road that leads past SCC’s Macon County campus is currently under construction. The existing road to reach the SCC campus in Macon is a narrow, dead-end, two-lane road. It will be widened and straightened, providing a better caliber road, and extended to tie into U.S. 441 so it is no longer a dead-end, a project carrying a price tag of least $13 million.

Both were on a short list of priority road projects that local DOT leaders tried to protect from state budget cuts.

Joel Setzer, the head of a 10-county DOT division based in Sylva, advocated to keep the SCC road projects on track despite others being delayed in the face of state budget cuts.

In April 2009, after reviewing a revised timetable for road construction, Setzer wrote in an email to a state engineer: “There are 39 projects with the schedules being delayed …. Of the 39, we see seven projects that the original schedule should be maintained.”

The new entrance to SCC’s Jackson campus and the improved road to SCC’s Macon campus were among the seven.

In another email a few days later, Setzer asked road engineers if they could get the roads designed in time should the money materialize as hoped.

“These two projects are being evaluated for schedule due to funding shortages. These are high priorities for Division 14. Division 14 is evaluating options for keeping these projects on schedule and delaying others. I need to know if the funding is made available, can you deliver these projects,” Setzer wrote. “Please let me know as soon as you can. I do not want to trade another project’s schedule for these and then not let them on time.”

Setzer said that the roads were not given preferential treatment per se. Given the funding constraint, the DOT was forced to choose which projects to keep on track and which to delay— but that doesn’t mean the SCC roads moved ahead of others in line.

“There is a difference between accelerating schedules versus maintaining schedules,” Setzer said.

Debnam questioned whether the roads were the best use of limited road building money.

“That’s $30 million of our division’s money that has gone into two glorified driveways,” Debnam said in an interview.

Debnam shared his disdain for what he claimed was preferential treatment for the SCC roads during a county commissioner meeting Monday. He even came prepared with a blown up map of the project.

Before Debnam could get started, Commissioner Joe Cowan stepped in.

“This report is not on the agenda,” Cowan protested. “If we are going to have this we need to have someone from DOT to tell the other side of the story and I object.”

“Well, they can come next time,” Debnam said.

Debnam told the audience at the commissioners meeting that they should all wonder about “the real purpose of this road.”

“There are some projects in our county that have been put off for years for the funding to be acquired for this road right here,” Debnam said.

“I don’t think anybody can become an authority on DOT projects after becoming a commissioner for only five months,” Cowan said after Debnam’s presentation.

Ryan Sherby, a liaison to the DOT for the six-county Rural Planning Organization, said the process for road building is complicated. There may well be “more pressing transportation needs” than the new SCC entrance, he said. But some projects are more complicated to design, cost a lot more money or have right-of-way hang-ups.

“This one may not be the best project in Jackson County that could have been pursued, but this is a doable project,” Sherby said.

Debnam critical of preference given to SCC road projects

The motivation behind a $12 million entrance road to Southwestern Community College has been called into question by a Jackson County commissioner.

Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County commissioners, claims the road catapulted past others to the top of the list.

“We all had other projects pushed back to get this in,” Debnam said.

The road first appeared on the N.C. Department of Transportation’s list of proposed projects in March 2007. A month later, it was allocated $400,000 to begin planning. Construction is scheduled to begin in the second half of next year.

SEE ALSO: DOT leader advocates for SCC road while serving on college board

SEE ALSO (PDF download): DOT proposal 

That’s not exactly fast-tracked, according to Joel Setzer, head of the Department of Transportation’s Division 14, a 10-county area with its main office in Sylva.

“It has taken a normal pace for a project of the magnitude that it is,” Setzer said. Granted some projects take longer, much longer, but this one was very straightforward in its design, has no environmental issues and little right-of-way to acquire.

The purpose of the new entrance road is to serve SCC’s expanding campus and for safety, according to the DOT. The college buildings are built into a hillside. The entire campus only has one entrance now, and if blocked, students could be trapped during an emergency.

Commissioner Joe Cowan emphasized this point as a counterpoint to Debnam’s questions over the project.

“If we had a real emergency there and that one way got blocked, there is no way to get there with an ambulance or fire truck,” Cowan said.

Both Tuscola High School in Waynesville and Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva were in similar straits. Each had a single road in and out and are also situated on a hillside. Both have had second entrance roads built with DOT funds in recent years.


Bridge over 107

The new entrance road calls for an overpass above N.C. 107 with on- and off-ramps. The interchange could serve a dual purpose in the future for the Southern Loop, a proposed bypass around the clogged commercial artery of N.C. 107, according to Conrad Burrell, a member of the state DOT board who lives in Sylva. The bypass would need an interchange where it connects with N.C. 107 anyway, likely in the same vicinity, so this one could play that role some day.

“That would be the logical place to put it,” Burrell said, adding they have suggested as much to road planners in Raleigh.

Lydia Aydlett suspects the interchange for the SCC road was designed with the Southern Loop in mind. The same people in the DOT who planned the SCC road are planning for the Southern Loop — namely Burrell and Setzer — so it is only logical they would devise a way for the projects to converge, said Aydlett, a member of Smart Roads Alliance that opposes the Southern Loop.

However, that was in no way the driving force behind the interchange design for the SCC entrance road, according to Setzer.

“That really was not the objective of the interchange. We were not trying to speculate where the 107 connector, if it is ever built, would come in,” Setzer said.

Debnam accused the SCC entrance road of ballooning from a simple intersection as first proposed to a much larger and costlier interchange sporting an overpass with ramps. The interchange design was chosen in lieu of a standard intersection because it is cheaper and safer, according to Steve Williams, a road engineer with the DOT office in Sylva.

Since SCC sits on a hillside, the entrance road must climb up from N.C. 107 to reach campus, Williams said. An elevated interchange means less excavation into the hillside when making that climb.

“The cost was cheaper to do a bridge because of the size of the cut,” Williams said.

It is also safer. If traffic backed up at a stoplight, drivers woudn’t know it until cresting the hill.

“You would abruptly be on stopped traffic,” Setzer said. “We were worried that would be a safety issue.”

The overpass design came as a shock last year to Jeanette Evans, a member of the Jackson County Transportation Task Force that was tasked two years ago with crafting a long-range road plan for the county.

Since the SCC road was already in the pipeline, it was never specifically discussed by the task force. But it appeared on all the DOT maps they used.

“It looked really innocuous,” said Evans.

Evans wasn’t the only one surprised.

“Maybe if the overpass (design) was talked about, it may have raised some opposition on the task force,” said Ryan Sherby, a liaison between local leaders and the six-county Rural Planning Organization.

However, the interchange design was adopted early in the design process. At a public meeting on the project in 2008, the DOT presented three concepts for the new entrance road and solicited public feedback. Two of those three options called for an interchange. At a second public meeting in 2010, the DOT again showed maps and handed out brochures showing interchange-style design options.

According to an attendance roster, at least two members of Smart Roads attended the first public meeting in 2008 where the interchange design was shared.


Help to congestion?

As a side benefit, the new entrance will relieve congestion at the intersection of N.C. 107 and N.C. 116 by giving students an alternative way onto campus, according to the DOT.

“I think it will take a quite a bit of traffic off that intersection. That was part of it,” Burrell said.

As of 2009, 11,000 vehicles a day traveled past the college on N.C. 116. Clearly not all of them were coming and going to the college — around 2,500 students take classes at the Sylva campus, but not all students come to campus every day.

How many vehicles would use the new entrance road, and whether it would take much pressure off the existing intersection, is doubtful, Debnam said.

“It is not going to pull that many people out of that intersection,” Debnam said.

Those coming to SCC from the Sylva area won’t be able to use the new entrance road. It would be used only by those coming from the Cullowhee area. Those leaving campus can use the interchange to head in either direction

A decade in the making, new SCC building expands campus holdings

A new building started taking shape last month at Southwestern Community College’s campus in Sylva, with completion slated for next March.

When finished, the nearly $8-million project will be called the Conrad G. Burrell building after longtime board of trustee member Conrad Burrell, who once took carpentry, electrical and other classes at what was then a technical college. The building will provide the school new bookstore space, plus additional academic and administrative space.

This represents the first state-funded construction to take place at SCC’s main campus since 1986, Project Manager George Stanley said. More recently, Jackson County paid to build an early-college building for high-school students there. The county transferred ownership of that building to the community college.

Jackson County also pitched in about $2.7 million to help fund the new building.

This new 38,210-square-foot Burrell building is being paid for with remnants of the 2000 education bond referendum. Stanley said the school asked to delay using the bond money to work out a swap for the land-strapped institution from the N.C. Forest Service, which neighbored SCC’s campus. Burrell was instrumental in making that deal happen — the Forest Service identified nine acres to relocate to elsewhere in Jackson, in the Greens Creek area, and SCC purchased the land for them.

“That was a good trade,” Burrell said. “Southwestern needed that property bad.”

The building is environmentally friendly, though it won’t carry the coveted LEED certification tag because of ongoing costs associated with that program.

“We have a pedigree building without the registration,” Stanley said.

That includes geothermal heating and cooling with 48 wells used to meet the 105-ton cooling load of the building.

Thanks to the economic doldrums, construction came in $1.5-million less than budgeted. This will allow SCC, pending state approval, to use its surplus to buy an abandoned Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Association water tank on campus. This is needed to provide adequate pressure to power a fire sprinkler system for all of the buildings on SCC’s campus, and to reach the third floor of the new building, Stanley said.

Burrell said he was honored when the SCC board of trustee’s named the building after him.

“I had no idea the board was going to do this,” Burrell said. “We were in a meeting, they asked me to leave — I thought they were going to fire me or something. I wasn’t expecting it.”

Southwestern Community College presidents resigns suddenly

Richard Collings has submitted his resignation as president of Southwestern Community College after just six months on the job.

The resignation was submitted Tuesday, to be effective Wednesday, Feb. 9. No reason was given for the resignation. Collings suffered unexpected health problems shortly after taking the job at SCC late last summer.

The board of trustees is moving quickly ahead to begin the search for a new president, according to Conrad Burrell, chairman of the SCC board of trustees.

In the meantime, the board selected Janet Burnette, executive vice president for administrative services, to serve as interim president. She served briefly as interim president before Collings came on board in August.

“Ms. Burnette has served previously as interim president of the college, and we feel her knowledge of the college and level of experience will best serve the college during this transitory period,” Burrell said in a statement.

The SCC board had approved the selection of Collings in June 2010 upon the retirement of longtime president Cecil Groves. At the time, Collings was president of Wayne State College in Nebraska. He was a former administrator at Western Carolina University, where he served as vice chancellor for academic affairs from 1996 to 2004.


Click to read about Collings health problems after being hired at SCC and his background

Click to read about Collings initial hire and his background


SCC offers new program in wilderness therapy

Southwestern Community College has started a new degree program whose graduates will likely become the leaders in the growing field of wilderness therapy.

The course work was designed in collaboration with area wilderness therapy providers such as Woodson Wilderness Challenge, Second Nature Blue Ridge, Phoenix Outdoors and others.

“We have a lot of interns in the field working with different organizations through our Outdoor Leadership program,” said Paul Wolf, the director of SCC’s Outdoor Leadership program. “And the message we kept hearing from these groups was that their biggest challenge was to get qualified staff and be able to keep them.”

Wolf is excited and enthused about the program, which began this fall semester and requires 18 semester-hour credits.

It’s been a two-year journey from brainstorming sessions to opening the doors to Wilderness Therapy students this fall. The journey began with meetings with Deb Klavohn, dean of health sciences at SCC. Then SCC had to get permission from the North Carolina Board of Community Colleges.

“We were granted permission last summer,” Wolf said.


A shift in direction

Wolf said wilderness therapy has had a major shift in direction since its early boot camp mindset.

Tragedies such as the ones at the Challenger Foundation in 1990 — where two teenagers died during separate wilderness survival trips — and the death of Aaron Bacon in 1994 while enrolled in a North Star Expeditions program made the industry slow down and take a second look. While “natural consequences” — i.e. if you don’t make a dry shelter and it rains, you get wet — are still a primary tenant of wilderness therapy, the industry has moved to an “empowerment model” rather than a punishment model.

He said that most of today’s wilderness therapy programs employ professional therapists or psychologists with graduate degrees. However, these therapists don’t march every step with participants, so the need for highly skilled field instructors is paramount to the success of the program and the safety of the participants.


SCC’s Wilderness Therapy program

A wilderness therapy field instructor wears many hats. That person is the trail boss to get from point A to point B. The field instructor has to have primitive living skills to ensure the group is prepared for whatever type of trail or weather conditions it encounters. Excellent orienteering and map-reading skills are mandatory. Plus, the field instructor is the first responder in any medical emergency and, for the majority of the trip, camp counselor.

Wolf has designed a diverse yet focused program to guarantee that SCC Wilderness Therapy graduates have what it takes to be competent field instructors and valued wilderness therapy employees. Courses in the program include Intro to Wilderness Therapy, Wilderness Therapeutic Models, Methods of Experiential Education, Primitive Living Skills as well as Land-Based and Water-Based Activities. The two courses offered this fall are Intro to Wilderness Therapy and Primitive Living Skills. Wolf said there were nine students in each class.

Wolf, who teaches most of the classes, has a bachelor’s degree with a double major in psychology and environmental studies from Mankato State University in Minnesota and a master’s in educational administration from Western Carolina University. He has years of experience in outdoor leadership and education including seven years with the Voyager Outward Bound School in the Boundary Waters wilderness in northern Minnesota. He was also coordinator of the Action Learning Programs at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Wolf also uses adjunct professors such as Jonathan Bryant, director of NOC’s wilderness medicine department, and Stephan Hart, who is a NOC instructor specializing in wild foods and medicinal plants.


A good fit

Wolf said the Wilderness Therapy program was a great fit and addition to SCC’s Outdoor learning Program.

“I would recommend an Outdoor Leadership degree for someone just out of high school,” Wolf said. “But the Wilderness Therapy certificate is a great add-on for someone who already has a degree or experience in outdoor learning.”

And it’s a great fit in the overall mission of community colleges. “This is something that is career-ready and specific. It was designed to meet industry needs and there are employers out there waiting,” Wolf said.



What is wilderness therapy?

Wilderness therapy — sometimes referred to as outdoor education or adventure-based therapy — are outdoor programs intended to be therapeutic in nature. They may simply self-identify as therapeutic or may offer more traditional psychotherapy in a wilderness environment.

Budget woes leave higher education institutions with tough choices

Up to 1,700 jobs, perhaps a whole campus eliminated — the dire picture painted this month by Erskine Bowles, president of the University of North Carolina system, on the state of higher education during these tough economic times isn’t pretty.

Locally, staff and faculty at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, Southwestern Community College in Sylva and Haywood Community College in Clyde are preparing for significant budget cuts.

Most likely, a 10-percent reduction is coming. State colleges and universities across North Carolina, however, are outlining what they’d do in response to higher and lower reductions, as directed by the UNC system and The State Board of Community Colleges.

“We are hearing talk of impending heavy slashing and have been asked to prepare scenarios of how we would deal with 5-, 10- and even 15-percent cuts,” said Rose Hooper Garrett, public information officer for SCC, via email.

A year ago, the UNC system took a $70 million cut, or less than 3 percent.


Sorting it out

“At this point, it’s too early in the process to provide the actual impact of what a 10-percent budget reduction would do to the overall operations of WCU,” said Chuck Wooten, vice chancellor for administration and finance for the university.

“It’s fair to say that most likely we will have fewer class sections, more students in each class, more dependence on part-time faculty, reduced funds for faculty travel and professional development, fewer funds for general operations such as supplies and equipments, elimination of vacant positions, possible elimination of positions that are currently filled, and reduced funds for general maintenance of the physical plant of the campus.”

Here’s what is happening: North Carolina is facing a budget deficit of $3.5 billion.

At 5 percent, the UNC system would cut $135 million and likely eliminate 800 jobs. At 10 percent, the UNC system would cut $270 million and eliminate 1,700 jobs.

“We’re really going to impact the academic side,” the Associated Press quoted Bowles as saying.

Rose Harrell Johnson, president of Haywood Community College, said the community college would lose more than $1,306,478 with a 10-percent reduction.

“For comparison, the college received an increase of $1,213,111 in state funding this fiscal year because it had a 10.77 percent enrollment increase,” Johnson said. “If the budget reduction becomes reality, the college will lose its enrollment growth budget increase and potentially more.”

Among other measures, Garrett said SCC has been considering tuition increases.

“At the system office we will look at operations, contracts and personnel,” she said.


Preparing for the worst

Wooten said WCU anticipated budget reductions by making a number of decisions in the 2009-2010 fiscal year to take in budget reductions totaling about 8 percent, which eliminated 93.92 positions.

“After satisfying budget reductions for 2010-11, $4,404,792 remained for use against future budget reductions,” Wooten said.

WCU would see reductions of $8,638,874 at the 10-percent level and $4,319,437 at the 5 percent level, he said.

“WCU’s plan, which was submitted to the Office of State Budget and Management, would first offer up the full amount remaining from previous budget reductions ($4,404,792) to satisfy the 5-percent budget reduction plan, and campus divisions and departments have identified additional budget reductions ($4,234,082) to satisfy a 10-percent budget reduction plan … (this) would potentially eliminate 41.08 positions in the 2011-2012 fiscal year budget.”

Groves said goodbye, but comes back again

Cecil Groves, former president of Southwestern Community College, is the new CEO of BalsamWest FiberNet.

Groves, who had moved to Texas to be near family, replaces David Hubbs, who announced he was leaving to pursue personal

New SCC president takes the helm after health setback

Richard Collings suffered a stroke the night he arrived in Western North Carolina to take over as president of Southwestern Community College.

What followed, as Collings described it, was “kind of a weird interlude” into his new job.

There had been no indication of potential health problems. Collings, a tall, lanky, fit-looking man, walks and bikes regularly for exercise. A doctor who checked him out a short time before the incident assured him he was in good overall health.

That first night back in WNC, however, he began feeling disoriented. His wife, Marilyn, suggested the possibility of a stroke. Collings was taken to a hospital for treatment.

He lived. He suffered minimal damage. He clearly believes himself fortunate. But one senses about him a lingering bemusement that he, Collings — a man who’d just been informed his blood-pressure reading was that of a teenager — could, without warning, be felled.

As it happened, the stroke wasn’t connected to blood pressure. A blood clot was to blame.


Getting on with things

Collings, 63, was cleared to start his new position Aug. 23. This followed two months or so in occupational and physical therapy. His right leg still feels a little weak. One hand is a bit numb. That describes the situation. Collings said he’s eager to get on with the job.

The task he faces is somewhat delicate: don’t be the man who messes things up.

SCC achieved national recognition, twice, under the leadership of the previous president, Dr. Cecil Groves. The college hasn’t been shy about trumpeting its Top 10 rankings by Washington Monthly, a monthly nonprofit magazine. On highway billboards, media releases, wherever and whenever potential students, faculty and staff — the simple passerby — can be reminded of SCC’s stellar rankings, they are reminded.

There’s little question that SCC, led by Groves and his predecessor, Barry Russell, emerged during the past two decades or so as one of the most important institutions in the far-western end of the state.

This, in part, is because unlike most of North Carolina’s community colleges, SCC serves more than one county. The two-year college’s service area is made up of Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, plus the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Michell Hicks, the tribe’s principal chief, is among the school’s most notable graduates.

This year, SCC has 2,650 curriculum students. There are 202 full-time employees and 477 part-time ones. Students can choose from 74 programs; 19 of those are available online.

SCC plays a critical role in training people to work in the service industry, and as medical experts, law-enforcement officers, outdoor guides, even hairdressers. Name anything connected with earning a livelihood here in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains, and former SCC students are probably involved.


New president styled “open minded”

Collings previously served as vice chancellor for academic affairs at Western Carolina University. Between then and taking the SCC job, he was president for six years at Wayne State College in Nebraska.

Bill Path, president of Northeast Community College in nearby Norfolk, Neb., said he wasn’t surprised when he learned Collings wanted to give up his post at the head of a four-year school to lead a community college. Path knew Collings’ children and grandchildren were still in this area, “and he was open-minded.”

“A lot of times, four-year colleges look down on two-year colleges. I never saw any hint of that, or hesitation on his part,” Path said.

During Collings’ stint at Wayne State College, the two men did something unusual. The Nebraska State College System would later use accolades such as “history making” and “unique.”

Collings and Path collaborated on a joint campus, an unusual partnership between a two-year and four-year school.

There was political opposition to begin with, Collings said. Some university leaders opposed the project, afraid perhaps of the competition, or being forced to undertake similar tasks themselves. The men also had to find more than $14 million, done largely through grants and private fundraising.

Construction is almost finished on a new joint campus in South Sioux City, Neb. Students will be able to take freshman and sophomore courses from Northeast, and junior and senior or graduate courses from Wayne State College — all in the same place, in their town, close to their own homes. The two men invented, at least for Nebraska, the educational equivalent of one-stop shopping.


A man with a mission

Collings might have embraced innovation in Nebraska. But don’t expect huge changes at SCC. This is an individual who strongly believes in defining, and adhering, to a mission.

He speaks of  “tweaking” things at the community college. Of getting involved in the multiple communities the college serves, and finding out what else residents need and want. But Collings also talks of the philosophy of continuous improvement.

“You either move forward or you fall back,” he said.

The former university administrator is not a fan of community colleges that emulate their bigger brothers and offer bachelor’s degrees, an education concept particularly embraced of late in the state of Florida. Collings doesn’t covet university sports teams. He doesn’t wish he could offer students dorm space on campus. Don’t, in other words, expect “mission creep” under Collings’ watch at SCC.

“Community colleges fill an important niche. There are things we can’t do,” he said. “We are not trying to be a university, or a four-year school. We have a different mission.”

Collings said he’s not made wholesale changes to the staff and faculty. Because, he said, this isn’t a rescue operation.

Kate Welch, a former Swain County teacher and 13-year member of SCC’s Board of Trustees, said Collings seemed a square peg for a square hole.

“I didn’t hear before, or since, any negative things about him. Everything that was said was very, very positive,” Welch said, adding that, during the interview process, Collings impressed her with his sincerity.

The similarities of his educational path and those of students who attend SCC also struck her favorably. The Louisville, Ky., native worked his way through school, usually doing some form of manual labor to pay his tuition.

“It made me think he could relate to our students,” she said. “Some work two, three jobs, and have childcare issues. And that he would be part of our community, and fit right in.”

Collings has a one-year contract. The trustees can choose to renew that contract, or not. He will be paid $140,000.


Meet SCC’s new president

WHAT: Welcome reception for Richard Collings

WHERE: Balsam Center Lobby of the Jackson Campus.

WHEN: Thursday, Sept. 30.

TIME: 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Glaze techniques shared at SCC workshop

Artist Laura Davis will demonstrate and discuss her glaze techniques from 6 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 16, at the Swain Center of Southwestern Community College.

Davis, who has been working with clay since 2002, owns Core Clay, a pottery studio and supply store in Cincinnati, Ohio. Much of her pottery is highly textured and features her signature transparent glazes. Her work can be seen at the Core Clay website, at the Pottery Festival in Dillsboro on Nov. 6, and in the book 500 Vases.

Students who want to try glazing techniques should bring up to two bisqued pieces, cone 6, maximum size three pounds each, to the class. Textured pieces are recommended. Participants will have an opportunity to glaze a piece, which will then be fired. The pieces will be critiqued during the second night of the workshop.

Free for enrolled students of the Heritage Arts Institute at SCC; $10. Bring a potluck dish to share.


SCC eyed for federal law enforcement training

Four donated modular units should help ease a space crunch at the Public Safety Training Center in Macon County, but the fix could be short-lived.

The training center, run by Southwestern Community College, might soon become one of a handful of sites in the country where federal law enforcement officers can get high-level training.

While thousands cycle through every year for basic police, fire and rescue training, demand may be stiffest for a handful of coveted slots in a four-month academy for federal park rangers.

Men and women seeking seasonal, or temporary, law enforcement jobs with the National Park Service train there now. But the college hopes to offer more federal training next year — by increasing the number of academies it holds and adding training for fulltime federal law enforcement officers.

The National Park Service would be the primary beneficiary. Some other federal agencies also could use men and women commissioned through the training center.

“There’s a lot of potential with this federal accreditation,” said Curtis Dowdle, director of the training center. “But we would have to meet a number of policies and regulations, such as instructors who hold certain credentials, equipment requirements, enough square-feet-per-student requirements.

“Record keeping is probably the biggest part — we’d have to house the records on the students forever, and that’s a big space issue,” Dowdle said.

Right now, all training for fulltime federal law enforcement officers takes place at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, headquartered in Glynco, Ga. Dowdle said the federal government estimates having a select number of sites across the nation offer the classes could save taxpayers more than $40,000 per government employee.

Space problems

Macon County Schools donated the modular units to SCC, and county commissioners last week agreed to spend $17,500 from the county’s contingency fund to pay to move them. They were previously used by two of the county’s schools for additional classroom space. Macon County has been building new schools and no longer needs them.

“It services the whole region, even the nation,” Ronnie Beale, chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, said of the center.

Steve Stinnett, chief ranger for the Blue Ridge Parkway, agreed that the training center plays an important role.

“The center has been very helpful to us,” said Stinnett. “They’ve really made it available.”

In addition to having access to a pool of qualified applicants when hiring, Stinnett said the National Park Service receives a professional boost because rangers working on the Parkway or in the Smokies are sometimes tapped to teach at the training center.

“People who teach something tend to do it better,” he said.

In addition to classrooms, a computer lab and more, the center has a driver-training course, shooting range and a 4,100-square-foot, three-story building used to train fire and rescue workers.

Each modular unit will provide an additional 864 square feet of space to the training center.

Simulators for emergency medical service workers will be set up in one unit. A use-of-force simulator for law enforcement officers will be housed in another, as will exercise equipment. One unit will add general classroom space.

But it’s doubtful the four units will provide adequate room for long. In addition to seeking the federal accreditation required to train fulltime federal law enforcement officers, Dowdle and SCC are considering other expansions.

‘Growing smart’

Two, 30-member academies for training the seasonal federal workers are currently offered. The academy starting in January has a waiting list; 15 men and women already have signed up for the second academy, which isn’t until August of next year. SCC, in response to the demand, is considering holding three academies each year.

Federal Law Enforcement Training Center officials did not respond by press time to an interview request.

“If we grow, we want to grow smart,” Dowdle said, emphasizing the community college’s need to weigh each expansion carefully.

An academy lasts four months. If another one is held, SCC — which under state law cannot operate student housing — will need to find more places for the students to live. The students now rent directly from people in the community.

“We must find more housing, unless we have an investor come forward who wants to put something up,” Dowdle said.

A state-of-the-art firing range is also being considered. This would be an outdoor range similar to one used by the federal government in Glynco. A bullet trap system would collect the lead, protecting both people and the environment. The firing range currently used by SCC is behind the water-treatment plant in Sylva. It has no trap system and just 10 lanes. That’s a problem when the community college is trying to train 30 cadets at a time, Dowdle said.

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