Future of Malheur County college takes centerstage

By Pat Caldwell

and John Braese

The Enterprise

ONTARIO — The Treasure Valley Community College president said Monday her institution will work to complete three key goals to address issues that arose in last week’s town hall meeting.

She made the commitment after last week’s town hall that drew a standing-room-only-crowd of 125 at Four Rivers Cultural Center. The town hall, organized by the Malheur Enterprise, included presentations from college leaders and then comments from the audience.

Several important themes emerged from the session, including perceptions of the college, how to market TVCC better, the need for better access to housing for students, and the necessity for more recreational outlets for students.

Building a stronger bond between the college and the community seemed to take center stage early on in the open forum session.

“I think we have to figure out the most effective way to market the college,” said the president, Dana Young.

That point was made last week by Andrea Dominguez, an Ontario resident who works for state Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario. She said marketing the attributes of the college is critical for the future.

“We need to get the news out and the college needs a social media presence,” Dominguez said.

Perception of the college proved to be an important topic at the town hall.

Andrea Leavitt, a student senator at the college, told the big crowd that the college is relatively unknown outside the immediate area and often she’s heard of Ontario called the “dirty O.” That perception she said makes an impact.

“It is hard to turn that around,” she said.

Leavitt also said the link between the community and the college must be enhanced.

“We need to make sure students here are not feeling left out,” she said.

Fernanda Rogel, another student senator, agreed and spoke about the necessity of creating and sustaining a bridge between the college and county residents.

“Let’s put the emphasis on community. Community is the people around you. To make Treasure Valley grow, we need to bring the community together,” Rogel said.

Rogel also agreed with Dominguez about raising TVCC’s public presence.

“I think we need to get TVCC’s name out there,” she said.

Nyssa-area farmer Dirk DeBoer said the college could be a job enhancer through training.

“We don’t have the trained employees that companies want. We have to re-educate the existing workforce and that is where TVCC can be very successful,” DeBoer said.

John Breidenbach, Ontario Chamber of Commerce president, pointed out that one college challenge he encounters is the lack of housing for students.

Breidenbach said every fall he fields phone calls from parents who can’t find housing for their children who are attending TVCC. Landlords often refuse to rent to students.

“As landlords, as businesses we should think about that,” he said.

Ontario resident Kathy Collins described the college’s importance to her family and gave a suggestion to the facility.

“Think about what you are doing. Sometimes you have to take a hit for it to rise,” she said.

Tammy Kinney, a visual arts teacher at the college, said her colleagues must get involved. She cited reported high pay for some instructions.

“The faculty needs to do its part,” she said toward the end of the public forum.

Another issue that came up was the perception there was a lack of extra-curricular actives locally for students. That need was recognized by Ontario Mayor Ron Verini after the session.

“After classes are over, what do they do?” he asked.

Young also mentioned the lack of student activities as a challenge in her closing remarks.

During the meeting, Verini lauded the college’s Small Business Development Center.

Young said after the meeting there remains plenty of work to do.

“We need to better connect our students with the community,” she said. “So how do we join together and make that happen?”

Young said overall, she felt the town hall was successful.

“It was very positive,” she said.

Ontario resident and college math instructor David Reynolds agreed.

“I felt it went well. It seemed like people were comfortable sharing their ideas and opinions,” he said.

Samantha Savage, the government secretary, agreed with Reynolds.

“There were some real valid opinions that are not voiced much and they need to be voiced,” said Savage.

The town hall came in response to continuing declines in enrollment at the college. College leaders recently had to cut $1 million from their budget to keep from going into the red.

The chambers of Ontario, Nyssa and Vale were event sponsors.

Before the session opened, attendees were greeted by music from the TVCC jazz band and explored exhibits about academic programs.

Les Zaitz, Enterprise publisher and town hall moderator, said the evening was about finding a “shared vision” for the college rather than “arguing about our differences.”

Mark Wettstein, president of the college board, recounted the college’s history, starting with its founding in 1962 and the first classes held in borrowed room at Ontario High School.

Kevin Kimball, interim vice president of administrative services, described the basics of college finances, noting that state support has declined.

Kimball said 80 percent of its revenue is derived from enrollment, either through state support or tuition.

He said the college confronts several challenges, including low funding from the state and unfunded mandates. A boost in costs to fund the state Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) also strains the college’s financial structure, he said.

Other potential financial tests for the college include sustaining competitive salaries, cost of technology equipment, and aging college infrastructure.

Christina Trunnell, president of the college faculty union, explained the college’s academic programs followed by Michelle McKay, vice president of student services. She talked about student enrollment, retention strategies for students and enhancing the experience of the students while they attend TVCC.

One item clear in McKay’s presentation is TVCC’s falling enrollment. She shared a chart showing the student count had dropped from 3,627 in 2010 to 2,477 last year. Enrollment dropped again this year.