NEMO — Box Elder Job Corps Education Principal Bonnie Fuller announced to the Lead-Deadwood School Board Tuesday that the education center housed in Nemo is in for a major shift, come September.

“We were told on May 24 that the center will be contracted out,” Fuller said. “We don’t know much more beyond that. They told us on the 24th that all of the kids will be out of there by the end of September, but now they’re kind of going back on that. They’re not sure. We really don’t know what’s happening. We just know that we will no longer be a Forest Service center. What’ll happen? When it’ll happen? I have no details. Right now, it’s just a struggle to see how we’re going to teach without teachers because a lot of the teachers, because it is so uncertain, will be moving on to other jobs.”

Currently, the Box Elder Job Corps has 57 staff on center and most are Forest Service employees. Eight are contracted through Black Hills Special Services for the high school program. On Wednesday, the center received 10 new students boosting the enrollment to 121 students. 

The relationship with the Lead-Deadwood School District goes back to 1991. 

“In that time, the Box Elder Job Corps Center has issued 1,190 high school diplomas to students,” Fuller said. “There is a special bill that supports the high school program at the Box Elder Job Corps.”

The state uses the number of students enrolled in the Lead-Deadwood Career and Technical Campus on the last Friday in September to fund the district. The Lead-Deadwood School District receives the money for these students and it is spent directly on the students at the center.  

“A majority of the money goes toward staff salaries, but also classroom materials for the high school program,” Fuller said. “Right now we have 54 graduates since July 1, 2018.  We may have more, as many students are trying to hurry up and finish because they want to stay in South Dakota and get a diploma from our school.”

There are currently 125 Job Corps Centers in the nation, both in rural and urban settings. While the program is one of 16 in the nation that will continue to operate and not one of nine slated for closure, all current employees are part of a reduction in force, the official government term for a layoff. 

All Box Elder Job Corps Center employees will be forced to reapply for their jobs, as the center’s operation will be outsourced to a private contractor and handed over to the Department of Labor. 

Reasons cited by government officials include: an effort to modernize and reform part of the Job Corps program; creating an opportunity to serve a greater number of students at higher performing centers at a lower cost to taxpayers; the desire of the USDA to keep a Forest Service focus on its core mission of improving the condition and resilience of the nation’s forests; and high costs to run the center and inefficiencies at the targeted centers.

Job Corps centers help train youth in wildland firefighting, forestry, culinary arts, welding, and other trades. Established in 1964, their official mission is to educate 16- to 24-year-olds, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds, while helping U.S. conservation efforts on public lands. After graduating from the program many of the youth have training, skills, and experience that qualifies them for permanent jobs in government or private industry.

Job Corps crews are often used on wildfires and prescribed fires. It remains to be seen if the personnel at the surviving 16 centers will be trained and allowed to participate in firefighting and other land management activities.

Fuller said the U.S. House of Representatives has passed legislation to prevent closure of the Job Corp Centers and a Montana facility originally slated for closure has been saved by a call from a state senator.

“Sonny Perdue (secretary of Agriculture) said that Job Corps was not a mission of the Forest Service or the Department of Agriculture and … our students have gone on numerous camp crews. We have a mobile kitchen that gets disbursed to fires, just to understand how much that saves the Forest Service, if you call up a mobile kitchen and then the fire is controlled and you don’t need it, it’s still $20,000, just for that phone call saying you needed it. Ours was loaded up and the kids went. We had numerous fire crews that went out, did lots of work.”

Lead-Deadwood School District Superintendent Dr. Dan Leikvold said he would be in Washington, D.C. July 9 and will meet with Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds and Rep. Dusty Johnson and will bring the issue up with them.

“Obviously, the Job Corps has been a great partner for a lot of reasons,” Leikvold said. “For community things or construction things or putting out fires. My interest, mainly lies with the high school program and the diploma program that has been so awesome.”

Leikvold said he would like to know one thing from government officials.

“What is your plan for these students, for these folks, in this successful program? Because the state of South Dakota needs to, I think, wants to, educate them and have them get high school diplomas and move forward so they can be productive, tax-paying citizens. I don’t know what their plan is. I’m just not sure that they’re aware of it.”

The Lead-Deadwood School District’s current elementary school art teacher, Jessica Yushta, is half time at the elementary school and half time at the Box Elder Job Corps.

“That might mean, rather than having her at the elementary school in the fall, we might have to move her to the spring, so she can be at the Box Elder Center while they are for sure still running for awhile,” Leikvold said.

School Board member Tera Mau pointed out that the Box Elder Job Corps Center graduated more students in 2019 than the Lead-Deadwood School District did.

“I don’t know for sure, if that program’s not there, I don’t know what those people are going to do,” Leikvold said.

“What we do know is, the plan is to transfer the South Dakota kids somewhere else while they’re in flux,” said Fuller, adding that most contractors offer online degree programs. “I think it’s going to be hard for someone to be interested in contracting the center, just because of the location, the age of the center. They say that it’s going to be contracted out, but there really is no plan.”

Board President Suzanne Rogers thanked Fuller for her service.

“It has been a great program and, hopefully, we can get them to realize that and keep it going,” said Rogers. “We certainly hate to lose that and the education those kids are getting, because I personally know from working out there with the kids, it’s amazing to see them from beginning to when they’re graduating and just the change in the students and these are kids that wouldn’t necessarily have a chance somewhere else and didn’t do well in regular classrooms and they’re just becoming successful and it’s exciting to see, so we hate to lose that.”

“And 25 years,” Fuller said. “I just want to add that this program is important, because so many of our students failed in public school. Usually because they did not have a stable home life. Living on center and being able to focus on completing their education and a trade gives them a chance to be successful. We see so many students enter our program unsure of themselves. When they graduate they are confident and successful young adults.”

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