Oregon community colleges face deadline as state prisons chief moves to take over inmate education

Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario is among the schools that currently contract with the state to teach inmates. (Enterprise file photo)

ONTARIO – Officials at Treasure Valley Community College have just days to convince the state’s prison system to keep an inmate schooling system that has been in place for 20 years.

At stake is a contract to teach inmates that paid the college about $2 million a year and funded 19 college jobs at Snake River Correctional Facility. The college also provides schooling at the Warner Creek Correctional Facility in Lakeview.

The Oregon Department of Corrections is planning to provide the schooling on its own, using agency employees instead of college educators. The agency calculates it can save about $500,000 a year doing so.

The shift would eliminate prison programs not only at the Ontario college but five other community colleges that serve their local prisons, including Chemeketa Community College in Salem. Nearly 1,000 of the state’s 13,228 inmates are enrolled in basic education courses, according to the Corrections Department.

 The colleges face a take-it-or-leave-it proposition from Colette Peters, Corrections Department director.

Peters said in a Sept. 30 letter to the Oregon Community College Association that she previously advised the colleges that any plan to continue using them “would need to include an increase in services, consistency in services (sharing with you some of the inconsistencies I’m aware of) together with a significant reduction in cost.”

She gave the colleges until Oct. 14 to get her such a plan for educating what the agency now calls adults in custody (AIC).

“The requirements are not negotiable,” Peters wrote. “We are not looking at this as the start of negotiations but as a final offer to the colleges before DOC moves forward with bringing education in house.”

According to a budget plan provided by the Corrections Department, the agency’s two-year budget for teaching inmates in 2017-2019 was $16.4 million. The agency said it could create 70 jobs within the agency to handle the same work at a cost of $13 million. The agency would spend $2.3 million in education programming and save $1 million in the next two-year budget cycle, which starts next July.

The plan said shifting basic schooling to prison employees “will increase weekly classroom hours” and “allow for consistency between institutions as AICs transfer from one institution to the next.”

But the budget plan hinted at another reason – to save jobs for the agency’s own employees. The plan said the agency expects more overall budget cuts in the next budget cycle. Creating 70 new education posts would mean “establishing positions for qualified staff to go into in the event their positions are impacted by future layoffs.”

Eddie Alves, Treasure Valley vice president of academic affairs, said the state made its move before talking to the community colleges.

He said turning corrections employees into teachers won’t help inmates.

“It makes no sense,” Alves said.

The community colleges made that point in a Sept. 24 letter to Peters, in which they said there appeared to be “miscommunication” over the plan.

“DOC never raised their own concerns about community college education contracts until they nearly finished” the plan to move the teaching in-house, said the letter.

The colleges said Oregon’s current program ranks in the top five in the country for the number of inmates completing GED coursework.

“Simply put, education reduces recidivism rates and provides access to better jobs upon release,” the college presidents wrote.

The letter noted that the teaching contracts expire at the end of the year and that the Corrections Department wouldn’t get a budget for in-house teaching until next July.

As a result, “AICs could be left without education services for at least half of the year in 2021,” the letter said.

The presidents asked Peters to postpone adopting her plan to provide the colleges a chance to address the agency’s concerns and budget needs.

“As experts in education, we stand willing to review program costs and services to help maximize financial resources and maintain quality,” the letter said.

In her response six days later, Peters pushed back on claims her agency executives hadn’t been available to the community colleges. Peters made clear a prime requirement would be for a single contract with all the colleges, not six separate deals.

She noted that service varied from college to college. One college, which she didn’t identify, taught inmates four days a week while the others taught five days a week. One offered 18 hours of instruction each week while others provided 27. Some colleges shut down teaching when their staff were out. She also said one college charged two-and-half-times what others charged per inmate for providing the education services.

News tip? Contact editor Les Zaitz at [email protected] or at 541-473-3377.

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