By MARK NEWMAN Courier staff writer
---- — OTTUMWA — Permission to bring in new students is welcome news at the Ottumwa Job Corps Center, but the end of the enrollment freeze does have strings attached.
"Since Jan. 28, it has been a bit of a rocky road for us," said Mark Douglas, the center director addressing the center's Community Advisory Group on Tuesday.
Since January, the center, designed for 300 students, has not been able to get any closer to that goal. Budget cuts and sequestration impacted centers and resulted in what was called the enrollment freeze.
"We had to lay off some staff as enrollment declined," Douglas said.
With about 100 full-time employees needed when operating at full capacity, the center had to give up five or six staff members over the past few months. Yet despite the U.S. Department of Labor lifting the freeze on Monday, getting back to full strength is still questionable.
"We're at about 180 students now," Douglas said. "There's going to be a buildup plan. We want to take students."
Yet according to new rules from the DOL, Ottumwa may not make it to 300. In fact, the Department of Labor cut has reduced enrollment for the entire Job Corps program by 20 percent. Douglas said Job Corps traditionally helped 60,000 young people each year. They'd gain job skills, learn societal expectations for behavior and stay off of public assistance. The reduction could mean 12,000 fewer students nationally.
In Ottumwa, "full" enrollment will now be considered 237 students, not 300. That would mean they won't need the full number of staff. Still, some Ottumwa Job Corps positions that were terminated are already under review for rehiring. And there may be a chance the center gets the number of students and staff it was designed for.
"We're proposing that Department of Labor [skip] this across-the-board budget cut ... and look at the Ottumwa facility specifically," said Douglas.
There's a couple of reasons for that. One is cost per pupil. The way this new "cost-efficient model" was designed in Ottumwa, fewer students will not equal fewer costs. Yes, food may go down, but infrastructure costs will remain about the same for 237 kids as they do for 300 kids. You can't turn off the heat, shut off the stove or send the gate guard home just because there are 60 fewer students. You also need an English teacher and a math teacher whether there are 10 kids or 20 kids.
The math shows a facility meant to house 300 kids may have a specific "fixed cost" of $12,000. With 300 kids, cost per student is $40 each. Dropping 60 students leaves that fixed cost at the same $12,000. Only what was once a good value now costs taxpayers $50 per student.
That was distressing to congressional aide Tom Larkin, who was at Tuesday's meeting representing his boss, Sen. Tom Harkin. He said he'd bring the cost efficiency concerns to Washington.
"Tom Harkin fought for the Ottumwa center year after year, and it didn't happen. When it finally happened, to have that cap put on before this center reached capacity was disappointing, to say the least," Larkin said.
And in a press release Monday, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley expressed reservations about the DOL's "good news." He wrote about his concern that the DOL's new plan reduced the number of total students that could be enrolled at every center and that he still wants answers on why the freeze was needed in the first place.
"This reduction is the primary action being taken to eliminate the budget shortfall that led to the enrollment freeze. We’re working to confirm this information," read a note from his office staff.
Grassley did, however, call the new plan "better than a freeze."
In general, however, community members and administrators at the center seemed happy with the end of the official freeze.
"I'm excited the suspension has been lifted," said David Humburg, the center's community liaison. "I want to thank the community for writing letters [of support] to congressmen, senators, even the White House on behalf of Ottumwa Job Corps. I like to think they made a difference."