News: CJ Exclusives

State-Funded Center Serves Few

Textile Center in Gaston faces forthcoming audit, questions about programs

The North Carolina Center for Applied Textile Technology, a state-owned higher-education institution that since 1996 has received more than $1.2 million annually in aid from the state, was audited recently for the first time.

The Textile Center in Gaston County operates and receives its “pass-through” funding out of the community college system budget. Considered the “59th” community college, it is not funded by the General Assembly like the state’s other schools, whose financial allocations are based on the average number of full-time equivalent students for each year. The center receives a flat amount annually — most recently $1.57 million in fiscal 2001 and $1.43 million in fiscal 2002.

A preliminary report by former community college system Audit Director Bill Cole had been completed but not released by early September. The community college system’s administration commissioned the examination of the center because legislative staff questioned whether it was efficient.

The center has no reporting requirements to the community college system or to the legislature, but N.C. Community College System President Martin Lancaster serves on the center’s board of directors. The governor appoints the remaining members of the board, which is comprised mostly of textile industry executives.

Carolina Journal obtained copies of the center’s class rosters for school year 2002-’03, which showed a large number of courses and few students.

The school reported that it conducted 412 courses for the school year, and 231, or 56.5 percent, had five students or less. Forty-nine classes, or 12 percent, had two students; 73 courses, or 18 percent, recorded only one student. About 25 percent of the classes had 10 or more students.

“It’s not economically viable to offer a lot of courses with just one or two students” said Dr. Pat Skinner, president of Gaston College, one of the state’s community colleges that she says is less than 15 miles from the Textile Center.

Dr. James Lemons, the center’s president, said the data was an internal document compiled annually to track staff’s public activities. He said it wasn’t a formal record of the Textile Center’s courses and students.
But the report is titled “Continuing Education Classes held at NC Center for Applied Textile Technology 2002-2003.” The document lists course titles, begin and end dates, course hours, number of students, and student hours (course hours multiplied by the number of students).

Some students contacted by Carolina Journal said they weren’t in classes that the center claimed they attended. Two people listed for one class on Jan. 27 said they didn’t attend. One was an elderly woman from Belmont who said she was a patient in a hospital at the time. The other, a nun from Charlotte, said she canceled prior to the class.

“Continuing education classes” also included activities held at the Textile Center by other organizations or businesses, but with no participation by the center’s staff other than security and janitorial support. On Jan. 22, for example, the City of Belmont used the facility for an eight-hour training session for 18 of its employees on a new computer evaluation system. The Textile Center credited itself for 144 student hours.

A few private businesses that used the facility were fodder for course credits also. Melco, an embroidery equipment manufacturer, uses the center to train customers who have bought the company’s machines. Last year, Melco accounted for at least 5,752 of the Textile Center’s student hours. Neither Melco nor its customers pay the Textile Center for the use of its facilities, but the school is allowed to use the company’s equipment for its own classes.

Lemons said that the center has no equipment budget and that when he arrived in 1984 the school had only antiquated machinery that had been donated after its usefulness was gone.

“Now we’ve got state-of-the-art equipment because of [the Melco] partnership,” he said. “I think it’s saving the taxpayers a lot of money.”

The Textile Center also included short presentations by staff — as brief as 15 minutes — on its list of “continuing education classes.” Personnel held such sessions in at least three Gaston County schools, in which teachers were informed about the center’s offerings and in one case, a special program was developed for a school. But on at least two of these occasions the Textile Center listed consecutive 15-minutes classes as separate courses given by its instructors: “Overview of Computer Applications” and “Overview of Web-based Training.”

While they didn’t characterize those brief sessions as instruction, two principals at the schools said they appreciated the help they received from the Textile Center.

“We’ve been real pleased with their workshops,” said Ronald Foulk, principal of Rankin Elementary School in Mt. Holly.

“All the [classes] I’ve been to are real good stuff,” said Lee Dedmon, principal of Highland School of Technology in Gastonia.

The Textile Center also made two consecutive 15-minute “Overview” presentations — claimed as “courses” — during a free Citizens Police Academy at the school. Attendees were invited by the Belmont Police Department to take the 11-week session. Five of the 17 citizens who took the academy, who were also listed as students of the “Overview” classes, said they never took computer classes at the Textile Center.

“I’m going to have to plead innocent to that one,” said one man who attended the police academy. “I’m technologically challenged and have never taken a computer course anywhere.”

The Textile Center also included the police academy on its list of courses.

Internal meetings of the Textile Center’s own employees also made its list of courses, including a 15-minute “Using the Calendar of Events” presentation. A two-hour explanation of the school’s emergency evacuation plan, given to 23 employees, also counted as a class held at the Textile Center.

“An individual on the staff wanted to be credited with that presentation,” Lemons said.

“No one is measuring the kind of assistance we provide,” Lemons said. “Some of the things we’re doing right now aren’t being captured.”

He said his staff works with businesses to tailor training programs to their needs.

“We don’t claim to be a college,” Lemons said. “We’re a center to support business and industry.”

The types of courses offered by the center reflected the nature of the struggling industry. Only about 25 percent were textile- or manufacturing-related. But 54 percent of the courses offered instruction on basic computer use, which community colleges usually offer.

They included classes on Microsoft Word and Excel, using the Internet, and buying computers. Some were as elementary as “Using Cut, Copy and Paste in Microsoft Office” and “Mouse Basics.”

“So often we don’t question [recurring funds],” said Rep. Jean Preston, an Emerald Isle Republican who cochairs the House appropriations subcommittee on education. “It’s just sort of there and we keep funding it again.”

Preston was surprise at the large percentage of classes with low enrollment.

“If [that’s] true,” she said, “then we have been misspending money.”

The Textile Center’s basis for funding isn’t expected to change, so what will come out of the audit is unclear. The community college system, though, wants to continue evaluating the center’s offerings annually.

“Even though the funding isn’t based on FTE, you still have to feel like the money’s being put to a good purpose,” said Audrey Bailey, a spokeswoman for the community college system. “The audit will either confirm or disprove that.”

Chesser is an associate editor at Carolina Journal.