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Gillette College faces both challenges and opportunities in transition process

Exterior photo of the Main Building at Gillette College.
Gillette College
Exterior photo of the Main Building at Gillette College.

Two and a half months ago, Campbell County voters overwhelmingly chose to make Gillette College Wyoming's newest independently governed community college. Since that time, steps have been taken to ensure a smooth transition.

The road to self-governance will likely be a long one. Not only does the college have to set up its finances, but the accreditation process could take up to five years to complete.

Despite any challenges that will be encountered, the administration at Gillette College wants the public to know that they are committed to ensuring that students and staff remain a priority during this process. Interim college president Janell Oberlander says that a student-centered approach is a guiding principle for them.

"Really at the center of what we do are students," Oberlander says. "We want to make sure, not only make sure but ensure that the students, as they pursue their academic programs, as they get ready to graduate, as they get ready to transfer, that that’s a seamless process for them. So, at the center of what we do are the students and then of course our faculty and staff—we want to make sure that that transition is also seamless for them."

Gillette College Board Chairman Robert Palmer agreed, stating, "That's why we're here."

Oberlander indicated that she does not necessarily anticipate any major issues coming up that would not allow for existing faculty and staff not to make the transition if they choose but said that it’s early in the process.

"I don’t think we're at a point where we can address that yet. I think we are working on standing up our executive team," she says. "We know that we have a phenomenal group of faculty and staff at Gillette College. We have strong success in those areas, and we have strong student outcomes, so to say that we're not going to bring anybody with us or that we’re not going to bring them across, I think it's too premature. We have to look at what programming we're going to do. I don’t anticipate changes there.”

Palmer said the decision for staff and faculty to transfer over to the new college is also a decision that lies with them as well.

"There's always two sides to every equation. While we may want all the faculty and the staff to come over, ultimately, it's going to be their decision as well in terms of which pathway, what career pathway do they want to take."

Oberlander adds that in addition to having a student and staff-focused perspective, another immediate focus is on obtaining accreditation. Until the newly formed Gillette Community College District (GCCD) gains its own accreditation, Gillette College will remain part of the Northern Wyoming Community College District (NWCCD) and will remain an accredited institution under them until that time. Oberlander points out that until GCCD accomplishes this, they must continue to work with an accredited institution, of which NWCCD naturally fulfills this obligation.

"So, even say, we have a student that starts in their first year, and during their second year we get full accreditation, we'll have agreements in place that will say 'here's how the student's going to finish,' Oberlander stated. "It could be that that particular group of students finished under NWCCD, because that's the path they're on already, or the agreement could say 'everything is in place here, they'll graduate as soon as we get our accreditation as an[sic] Gillette Community College District."

Palmer adds that if transferring from NWCCD to GCCD were required, it would be a similar process as if a student transferred to another Wyoming community college, the University of Wyoming, or even nearby out-of-state colleges and universities.

"In this particular case, we want to make sure that it's as…seamless that when we do that when we do that, it's going to be at a semester break," he adds. "From the student's perspective, there shouldn't be any real changes. It's going to be up to the student which, which pathway they want to take in terms of their credentialing, their diploma, and their graduation requirements."

Ensuring that the college's finances are in order is another important step in this process. Currently, the administration is looking to hire a chief financial officer that can help organize the college’s financial affairs.

"As we start working towards the next fiscal year, we will be taking into consideration what the overall operating budget is. Then we will develop with, as we begin to hire the chief financial officer–that’ll be the next hire that we do—we'll build a budget and present that to the board of trustees," Oberlander says. "The board will then have to, with a recommendation of how many mils, the mil levies that we'll need along with the other revenue that we’ll have and the expenses. The trustees will levy the mill and start into the process."

The Wyoming community college system has also been helpful in this process, which allows the administration to view sample budgets while constructing their own.

The level at which the mils will be levied is expected to be different than what Wyoming’s other community colleges levy them at. Due to the relationships that Gillette College has with local business and industry leaders as well as the state of the local economy, state funding is not expected to be necessary.

"We are very blessed in Campbell County in that, we've over the last decade, decades, we've had the highest assessed valuation in the state of Wyoming," Palmer says. "When we took a look at what our preliminary budget needed to be, fully stood up as an independent community college with full accreditation, when we look at what that mil needs to be, in addition to the other resources that are there, the student tuition and fees…and in grants and other sources of revenue, we firmly believe, I think the current board of trustees believes that it’s not necessary to levy the full four mils."

Palmer adds this is good for the local business community, Campbell County, and the seven other Wyoming community colleges. These colleges all levy at least four mils, meaning that they are all eligible for state funding. Many of them also exercise an option that gives them the ability to levy an additional fifth mil.

Currently, the proposed Gillette College mil levy ranges from two to two and a half. Because the current mils were approved by the county commission earlier in the year, the first mils for the college will not be levied until July 2022, once a new fiscal year begins.

Palmer explains that as part of the NWCCD, of which Gillette College is still apart, it does receive state funding due to the previous mil levies that have been levied for the district. Gillette College has approximately 45 percent of the students in the NWCCD. The state funding that the college doesn't take can then be redistributed to the other community colleges statewide, which all require state funding.

Oberlander states that a recent agreement that was signed with Sheridan College allows for a shared set of values to be acted upon, which include honesty and transparency, and that can keep both colleges in check during the transition process.

"There's going to be a lot of challenges moving forward, but also a lot of opportunities," Palmer says. "While we've got a lot to do, we've already accomplished quite a bit…we have a board of trustees, seven members that are very student-focused, very institutionally passionate about Campbell County and Gillette College. It’s working through all of those different opportunities out there.”

Dr. Walter Nolte, a former president of Casper College has been brought on as a consultant on a 6-month contract to help in the transition. Oberlander says his knowledge and experience will be helpful for them in the transition process.

"He knows how Wyoming community colleges operate," states Palmer. "Having Dr. Nolte on board will complement that and compliment her [Oberlander] as she moves forward in her presidency and moving us forward to get accreditation, so I think his knowledge of accreditation and I think his knowledge of Wyoming community colleges, his knowledge of financing community colleges will be very important."

Palmer also says Dr. Nolte is highly respected and knowledgeable of the legislative process, which adds to the value of this guidance for the college.

"One person can't do this work, it's impossible for one person, so we're very fortunate to have some really great consultants, Dr. Nolte being one of them," Oberlander said. "And certainly, we have a board of trustees that are doing work that normal boards of trustees don't have to do or don’t engage in. Where we’re at in this process, we certainly have to have people with certain expertise, and certainly, Dr. Nolte brings some very wide breadth of expertise to the table."

The Gillette College Advisory Board, which has been around for years, will continue to be an important part of the college, though there will be discussions as to what the role of the board will be under the changing circumstances.

"It's an important entity, as well as are the other advisory boards that we have for our career and technical education programs…they're very important to us as we develop and change and grow our programs," Oberlander said.

Gillette College administration hopes that in the coming months, things will begin to develop, such as filling more important executive and administrative positions.

Continuing working towards accreditation and putting a budget together for the first full fiscal year budget are just some of the plans that are expected in the coming months.

"As we move forward, President Oberlander's going to be putting together her cabinet, so the selection of a CFO, the selection of a vice president of academic services, student services…going into our first legislative session," stated Palmer. "And so having an individual that has that background, has that experience…and then most importantly or as importantly is the accreditation process."

Though only a short time has passed since the Aug. 17 vote, both Oberlander and Palmer are optimistic about the future of Gillette College.

"We just have an excellent faculty, excellent staff, very again, very, very student-centered, very student-focused," says Palmer. "And I think that's what's attributed to the success that we’ve achieved and the accomplishments that we've had in the past."

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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