Two years ago, Blue Mountain Community College teamed up with other colleges across the state to convince the Oregon Department of Corrections to continue the colleges’ adult education and GED programs in state prisons. At 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 layoffs at a school that’s already seen layoffs and budget cuts in recent years. And it’s now unclear who will provide education in an area that houses thousands of state prisoners.
In a joint statement from the Corrections Department 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 June 30. They did not specify who would be taking over those duties.
The latest round of layoffs once again put BMCC’s faculty and classified unions at odds with administration, which is arguing that the corrections GED and adult education programs don’t align with the college’s future.
“I believe that we as an industry, as higher education, have a moral obligation to provide as many educational opportunities as possible for all members of our society, whether they’re serving time or not,” BMCC President Mark Browning told the board. “We do not have to do everything for everyone, every day, all the time. We simply do not have that capacity.”
Browning recommended the board drop the college’s GED and adult education programming at state prisons in Pendleton, Umatilla and Baker City in favor of entering the “for-credit arena.” Under a newly revived U.S. Department of Education program, inmates could take lower level college courses in subjects like reading, history and math by obtaining federal Pell grants.
Browning said he hoped the laid-off employees would come back to BMCC to teach for the new for-credit program, but the college hadn’t applied for eligibility yet and he didn’t know how many positions 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 in-house in 2021, the Legislature intervened and made the Higher Education Coordinating Commission the middleman between DOC and the community colleges that provide classes behind bars.
The Legislature provided extra one-time money to colleges as a part of the deal, but Browning said lawmakers don’t have an appetite to renew the funding. Without an extra source of revenue, Browning said it would cost more to operate the programs than the state is paying through the contract.
When the board gave staff a chance to speak, all voiced opposition to the cuts.
Dulcie Hays, a veteran instructor at Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla, told the board that staff was “blindsided” by the cuts because, up until the meeting announcement, staff thought the contract was still being negotiated.
“I think I speak for a lot of us whenever I say we’re just devastated that this contract and this program hasn’t meant more to BMCC,” she said.
Browning disputed Hays and other staff members’ accounts, saying that college administration informed union leaders a few days ahead of the meeting.
The BMCC board has approved layoffs and job cuts four years in a row. When the college announced plans to cut 10 positions in 2022, the BMCC faculty union organized a public rally to convince the college to reverse course. The college eventually reduced the number of cuts from 10 to five, but the reductions still moved forward.
BMCC has attributed the layoffs to statewide trends like an overall swoon in community college enrollment, and local factors like increased competition from other colleges in Eastern Oregon and southeast Washington. Union leaders have argued that less staff means less educational programming, which will ultimately further hurt enrollment.
Staff at the special meeting told the board that what students in prisons actually wanted to see was a program that integrated both GED courses and college classes.
“How many adults in incarceration right now have a GED and could apply for this Pell for prisoners grant? Not many,” said Sascha McKeon, the president of the BMCC faculty union. “If we let that contract lapse, we would be trading (full-time positions) now for a fraction of that down the road.”
The arguments were not enough to sway a majority of the board, with only one member voting against the layoff plan.
The cuts come as the Legislature is taking action on bills meant to expand community college access in state prisons. The Oregon Capital Chronicle reported that the state 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 Commission on prison education policy. Neither bill includes additional funding for prison education.