USDA reverses decision to close rural Job Corps centers, including Franklin Co. location

by Wesley Brown (wesbrocomm@gmail.com) 811 views 

Following public outcry nationwide and pushback from some Arkansas congressional members over the past three weeks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced Thursday (June 20) that it will not close its rural Job Corps program across the U.S. for now, including the 35-acre Cass Civilian Conservation Center in the Ozark Mountain region.

“Following robust engagement with stakeholders and members of Congress regarding the future of the (U.S. Forestry Service) Job Corps centers, USDA has notified Department of Labor (DOL) that the USFS will evaluate the feedback while reviewing its role in Job Corps management and operation,” USDA officials said in a statement to Talk Business & Politics.

“For the time being, USDA does not intend to transfer these centers to DOL to allow management to determine a pathway that will maximize opportunity and results for students, minimize disruptions, and improve overall performance and integrity,” USDA continued. “(We) will conduct a robust organizational review to determine the appropriate course of action keeping in mind the USFS mission, the students we serve, and the American taxpayers.”

Not addressing if the rural Job Corps locations could be shuttered at a later date, the USDA added “it is imperative the USFS focuses on and prioritizes its core natural resource mission to improve the condition and resilience of our nation’s forests.”

In response to the Department of Agriculture’s statement, U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, applauded the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw plans to end the rural Job Corps program.

“Civilian Conservation Centers are a unique part of the Job Corps, and I’m pleased to see that the program will continue at Cass,” said Westerman. “Not only do CCCs educate young people in rural communities across the country, but they also play a critical role in immediate disaster relief, including wildfires.”

Added Boozman: “The Cass Center provides invaluable skills training for young Arkansans. I’m pleased to hear that the administration will continue operating this workforce development program because it expands economic opportunity in the region. The U.S. Forest Service should work with Congress to ensure that CCCs meet the needs of participants and taxpayers.”

Earlier this week, U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta on a visit to Little Rock to participate in a panel discussion with Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin at the State Chamber of Commerce in Little Rock. At that meeting, which also included an appearance by Rep. French Hill, R-Little Rock, several Franklin County officials came to Little Rock to speak with Acosta concerning the federally-approved rural Job Corps training facility that has helped troubled teenagers and young adults in Arkansas for about 50 years.

Acosta encouraged those Franklin County officials, including state Rep. Sarah Capp, R-Ozark, and the community’s Mayor Roxie Hall, to send letters to the federal policymakers so concerns about the closure of Cass and other rural Job Corps centers could be heard. However, the Labor Secretary also acknowledged that the rural centers have help many troubled youth and teens across the U.S. but said the ongoing costs to continue the programs were not fiscally responsible.

“The goal is to provide skills to young Americans … that, you know, have had problems and they’ve had a tough life – so they are particularly difficult to scale up. I think we all can agree on this,” said the labor chief. “Now, we are in essence running 125 community colleges from Washington that are providing these skills. In this particular one, I think the per student cost is about $55,000 per student. So, these are really hard decisions.”

By shuttering the rural CCC facilities, Acosta said the Department of Labor’s widely held Job Corps program will be able to help more young people by shifting those dollars to the 125 urban job training centers with the highest sustained student performance outcomes, including Arkansas’ lone Job Corps campus at 6900 Scott Hamilton Drive in Little Rock.

“At the end of the day, because of the capacity we have throughout the (Job Corps) system, we are going to be able to provide more education to more young Americans,” said Acosta. “And part of the difficulty is that a lot of these (CCC) centers because they are smaller, they are very, very difficult to run and they are in areas that are not in high demand geographically. So, from a student perspective, we will be able to have more students in the system.”

On May 25, Talk Business & Politics first reported that the Labor Department had quietly announced plans to shutter or outsource all the nation’s rural Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers over the Memorial Day weekend, including the Cass CCC facility in Ozark, Arkansas. The nation’s 25 CCC Job Corps centers offer free-of-charge education and vocational training to young men and women between the ages of 16 to 24 in isolated, rural areas across the U.S.

The Cass job training center is located in rural Arkansas along the banks of Fane Creek near the Mulberry Scenic River and the Ozark National Forest. All students in the program live on the Job Corps campus, which includes a dormitory, cafeteria, store and several activity and fitness facilities.

Hall told Talk Business & Politics that Cass Job Corps center has been a staple in the community for 47 years, offering tuition-free training and education in such technical areas as advance manufacturing, culinary arts, bricklaying, heavy equipment operations and carpentry. The Ozark mayor said youth participating in the rural job training program have built new sidewalks, remodeled buildings in downtown Ozark, and helped provide sandbags locally during recent flooding in the rural community.

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