TCL, Colleton County disagree on new career center

rheaton@beaufortgazette.comMay 9, 2012 

Some Colleton County officials say the Technical College of the Lowcountry hasn't lived up to promises to provide instruction at a county training center and might have to repay $1.7 million in federal grants as a result.

School officials say that is unlikely and that its program offerings at the Colleton Career Skills Training Center have changed along with the county's needs.

Ultimately, the S.C. Department of Commerce will decide, county officials said. If the promises outlined in the grant application haven't been delivered, TCL could have to return the money that Colleton County received to build the center.

In 2007, TCL agreed to provide the county with programs in warehousing and distribution logistics, commercial and industrial HVAC installation and repair, multi-skilled maintenance, and general machine shop.

But not even half of the outlined courses have been offered, according to a memo to Colleton County Administrator Kevin Griffin from Michelle Knight, the director of community and economic development with Lowcountry Council of Governments. Knight helped prepare the applications for the grant, which is administered by the Commerce Department.

Instead, courses have been held for students pursuing a commercial drivers license or in more "soft-skills" areas -- computer courses, and clinics in resume writing or time management, said Nancy Weber, TCL's vice president of enrollment management and marketing.

"We offered these courses based on what we were hearing (from employers)," Weber said.

The initial offerings were based on a survey of Colleton employers.

But Weber said needs in Colleton County have changed since then and that the career center also has to change to meet workforce needs.The economic downturn has led to the closure of some plants, such as New York Wire.

The 2007 agreement doesn't provide for TCL to offer other programs. Weber said the agreement hasn't been amended, but school officials "have had many conversations with Colleton officials" about the changes, she said.

Griffin said he's not sure the employment landscape in the county has changed enough to warrant shifting focus at the career center.

"That's an argument they're going to have to make to (the Commerce Department), not to us," he said.

Colleton County Councilman Joseph Flowers said while TCL should be flexible enough to meet the needs of the community, the county's employment picture has not changed enough to justify a shift in the instruction it offers.

Attempts to reach County Councilmen Phillip Taylor, Evon Robinson, Gene Whetsell and Steven Murdaugh were unsuccessful.

The center isn't serving as many students as it was projected to, either, Knight said. Knight, who helped write the grant application, said the goal was for 375 people to use the center in its first year.

Weber said about 130 people have taken courses. Only 18 of the 49 courses the school has offered attracted enough enrollment to justify holding classes. Because interest in those courses, many of which are introductory, has been low, the four promised programs have been slow to grow, too, Weber said.

Nonetheless, TCL could be violating terms of the grant by not holding the four promised programs, Knight said. That could mean the $1.7 million in grants used the build the center would have to be repaid, she said.

Both Colleton County and TCL could be on the hook for that, she added. TCL did not contribute money to build the center and promised funds only for operations.

Griffin said he believed paying back the money would fall to TCL.

Griffin, Flowers and Weber said they believe the conflict between the school and the county could be resolved, and county and schools officials plan to meet with the Commerce Department later this month.

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