Northlands Job Corps director out after less than a year

VERGENNES — The head of the Northlands Job Corps Center in Vergennes has been replaced after less than a year on the job.
An official of the company that operates the federally funded job training center confirmed in an email to Vergennes City Manager Mel Hawley last week that center director Shirma Ferguson has been replaced by an interim director.
Ferguson came aboard along with Chugach Alaska Corp. to run the Macdonough Drive center in late 2016, replacing CHP International, which had operated Northlands for the previous three years. Chugach became the third new company to operate the center since 2010.
Private companies run the more than 120 Job Corps centers under contract with the Department of Labor (DOL), which oversees a nationwide program that provides vocational training to economically disadvantaged youths and young adults.
Documents mailed anonymously to the Independent include a Northlands Student Government Association (SGA) letter addressed to Ferguson that said she refused to meet with SGA representatives as required by Job Corps policy, she did not respond to requests for recreation improvements, she and other Northlands staff members inappropriately and inconsistently applied discipline, and the SGA system, a learning component at Northlands, was being “disregarded.”
A letter and emails to the Independent from staff members and a letter that was written jointly by staff members and posted around the Northlands campus also criticized Ferguson’s management style and alleged violations of DOL policy.
Sources told the Independent that SGA and joint staff letter was provided to the DOL. Several email requests for comment to the DOL, dating back to Aug. 30, did not trigger responses.
Chugach officials declined to comment on Ferguson’s departure. Marketing manager Cristina Cober said on Sept. 1 Chugach’s contract with the DOL prohibited company officials from speaking to the press.
Program manager Claire McMillan on Aug. 31 said, “At this point, Ms. Ferguson is the center director at Northlands Job Corps.”
On Sept. 1, Hawley emailed McMillan and asked for a clarification of Ferguson’s status, citing the city’s need to know who was in charge at Northlands and the facts behind the “local chatter” about her job.
McMillan responded to his email with a Sept. 1 email: “We are planning on making a change in leadership, but that hasn’t officially happened. Shirma is on leave and Alicia Grangent is acting Center Director,” she wrote in part.
Cober, speaking out of Chugach’s Nevada office, would not comment on whether Grangent is a candidate for the permanent job, but cited some of the positives of Chugach’s tenure.
Cober said Chugach has made a major improvement to academics at the center with the introduction this year of an advanced welding program that can lead directly to high-wage employment, that Northlands’ urban forestry program continues to contribute to local communities, and that Chugach seeks and has worked toward good relations with its host community.
In general, Northlands has earned praise for its academic programs and its students’ willingness to volunteer for community projects, such as setting up chairs in the Vergennes Opera House or participating in Green Up Day. It also employs more than 100 at any given time, and Cober said Chugach now employs 116.
Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel said from his point of view Chugach and Ferguson had been pluses. Merkel was not happy with Alutiiq, which operated Northlands from 2010 to 2013, for not reporting assaults and other crimes in a timely manner to his department.
But he said things have been markedly better under both first CHP and then Ferguson and Chugach, which he described as “very cooperative.”
“They’ve dealt with our department very well. I’ve had no complaints,” Merkel said. “They’ve actually been pretty damn good.”
Alutiiq’s problems were the low point of what could be fairly called an unstable period at Northlands, which was founded in 1978 on a roughly 60-acre, state-owned property that formerly housed the Weeks School for troubled adolescents.
For 20 of its first 25 years Careers Systems Development Corp. operated Northlands, with a five-year break in the early 1990s when Minact Inc. ran the center. Those five years saw discipline issues, and Career Systems returned. Rescare took over for five years in 2005, and then Alutiiq won a contract in 2010. DOL contracts to operate the center start by running for a year or two, but are most often renewed for up to five years and then put out for bid again.
Alutiiq’s tenure was marked by initiation beatings in one dormitory documented in a March 2012 Independent article, an assault on the campus that hospitalized the victim and went unreported to city police for more than 24 hours, and frustration on the part of city officials with the lack of cooperation of company officials with Vergennes police. DOL officials never commented on that termination of the Alutiiq’s contract.
CHP International took over before Alutiiq’s five-year contract ran its full course, and then Chugach took over before CHP’s potential five-year contract ran its course.
The DOL would not comment on the transition from CHP to Chugach. A month after Chugach took over, the DOL emailed the Independent this statement about its evaluation for proposals submitted by potential new contractors: “The requirements for the proposal are still being evaluated. We have no updates at this time.”
In all, after having three center operators in its first 32 years, Northlands has now had three since 2010. Northlands has also had a half-dozen center directors, counting interims, since 2010, one of whom, Tony Staynings, has served two stints for two companies.
The center has the capacity to handle up to 270 students, and operators are paid at least in part on how many students are in attendance. Cober pegged its current student count at 141. According to sources, Chugach has discussed layoffs if what the DOL calls “on-board strength” of students does not improve.
Unanswered questions posed to the DOL in the past week include: what is its potential role in the latest leadership change at Northlands, is the recent years’ turnover in operators typical at Job Corps centers, what the DOL knew about alleged failures to follow proper disciplinary procedures at Northlands in the past year and what its response might be, and what Chugach’s contract status might be.

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