Chemeketa loses contract for inmate GED classes as state moves teaching in-house

Oregon State Correctional Institution. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Chemeketa Community College will soon be out of the business of helping inmates in local prisons finish high school.

The Oregon Corrections Department on Friday turned down an offer from Chemeketa and five other community colleges to reshape in-prison schooling to cut costs.

For Chemeketa, that means shutting down in January a program that served Oregon State Penitentiary and Oregon State Correctional Institution.

The college’s $1.6 million per year contract paid for about 14 full-time employees to teach GED and basic education courses. Chemeketa is considering options for employees currently paid for under the contract, spokeswoman Marie Hulett said.

The change doesn’t cover separate Chemeketa programs to teach automotive technology, computer-assisted drafting and other college-level courses at the two prisons.

The Salem college and others have been scrambling for a month to forestall the change.

Colette Peters, Corrections Department director, said in a letter to the colleges that their latest plan to keep the business didn’t meet the state’s needs.

DOCUMENT: Letter to colleges

She included a point-by-point critique that found the community college bid wanting in almost every way.

“Our policy decision to bring education in-house is a continued reflection of our ongoing commitment to effectively prepare adults in custody (AICs) for their eventual reentry into our communities,” Peters wrote in her letter dated Oct. 16.

She was reacting to a joint letter from the Oregon Community College Association that criticized the prison agency while trying to pitch a new deal. The letter represented Chemeketa, Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario and Central Oregon Community College in Bend, Portland Community College and Southwestern Oregon Community College in Coos Bay.

DOCUMENT: Colleges letter to state

In their letter, the colleges said they would cut overall costs to the Corrections Department by 15%. But that also would mean reducing how much service state prisons get.

“Reductions across the college would be absorbed through employee reductions and other cost-cutting measures,” the college letter said. “The significant level of reduction across all six colleges will impact the services AICs receive as well as the employees who deliver those services.”

The colleges at the same time said new classes would be offered at Mill Creek Correctional Facility in Salem and South Fork Forest Camp in Tillamook.

They noted cutting contracts for GED programs would raise administrative costs for other vocational prison educational programs like Chemeketa’s College Inside.

The colleges also criticized the agency’s plan for educating inmates itself, saying its staff “may lack expertise,” that it features “unrealistic programming hours,” and that it assumes it can take $2.5 million separately allocated to colleges to support prison classes.

“We strongly believe community colleges remain the best choice for offering primary education services in Oregon’s correctional system,” the letter said.

Peters and her team found otherwise.

The Corrections Department analysis found, as the colleges noted, that the prison system would get less service than before and that only one college committed to providing year-round teaching while others still would take traditional academic breaks.

The agency said the colleges didn’t answer the need for a minimum of six hours per week of school for inmates, standard schedules at each prison, and a plan to continue schooling when some staff were absent. At the end of her “no deal” letter, Peters told the college presidents that her decision “does not diminish our appreciation of and acknowledgement for our history together.”

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