By Jonathan Gallardo
Gillette News Record
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
GILLETTE — On most days, having your car break down on the side of the interstate at 10 at night would be the worst part of your day.
But for a couple of dozen people on a bus headed back to Gillette from Sheridan after a meeting Wednesday night, it wasn’t even the worst moment of the last hour. The bus broke down just outside of Buffalo, making a long ride even longer.
During a special meeting of the Northern Wyoming Community College District board of trustees Wednesday night, Campbell County residents presented a short-term, privately funded solution to keep sports and the Energy City Voices going through the next school year, with hopes of coming up with a permanent solution in the meantime.
A few hundred supporters of Gillette College, including student-athletes, coaches, parents and legislators, made the hundred-mile drive to Sheridan College to attend the meeting. But in the end, the board of trustees approved the district’s fiscal year 2021 budget without considering Gillette’s solution.
It means that this fall, Gillette College won’t have a basketball team or a soccer team.
Gillette and Campbell County officials and residents went to the meeting to make their voices heard, but they left the meeting feeling as though no one was listening.
“I think the whole thing was really a big dog and pony show,” Commissioner Rusty Bell said Thursday morning. “It was pretty apparent that they had their minds made up, and they just put on a show.”
“We had a solution that we could save this part of our school, and it helps the whole district,” said Mayor Louise Carter-King. “They had their minds made up. We wasted our time.”
What Bell took away from the meeting was that “we’re not good enough partners to be with Sheridan. They don’t even acknowledge us. It’s time to go.”
The process already has been started to get a petition from Wyoming Community College Commission to create a new district.
“We have to have 500 signatures. That’ll happen in about 10 minutes,” Bell said.
That petition will then have to go before the district board.
“You’ll not see a more united community than Gillette and Campbell County in this effort,” Bell said.
On June 25, the district announced that all sports programs at both Gillette and Sheridan colleges, save for rodeo, would be cut.
District President Walt Tribley said Wednesday the current funding model for the athletics programs was not fiscally sustainable during these economic times. He said athletics could come back to the two schools at some point, but it would be in a different form.
Dave Horning, president of the Gillette College Foundation board, told district trustees that the foundation’s board met Monday to come up with a solution.
“Without hesitation, and with confidence that it has the support of our donors and community,” the foundation committed to provide the money necessary to save and continue those athletic programs and the Energy City Voices through fiscal year 2020-2021,” he said.
The foundation, along with private donations, would raise $532,407, which would be enough to pay salaries and benefits for Gillette College coaches, restore the Gillette College rodeo coach to full-time status and pay program expenses as they’re incurred for one year.
Meanwhile, Campbell County will work with lawmakers to come up with legislation that will provide community colleges with more stable funding.
Bell said it’s not going to be easy, but Gillette’s willing to work hard all year to make it happen.
“We’ve been through tough times before, and we have pulled through, because we have worked together to come up with a solution,” Carter-King said.
Mike Hladky said Gillette and Sheridan are very different communities, so they should have two different college boards.
“When the opportunity comes in the near future for you to vote or give your opinion, should you sit here and make decisions on the lives of Gillette people? I don’t think you want to. Why would you want to?” he asked.
Liz Lewis, former head coach of the Gillette women’s basketball team, made a sports analogy, saying it’s easy to lead a team in a blowout victory.
“True character is seen in times of struggle,” she said. “Right now, we are down by two with 10 seconds left. You are our leaders. Call your play.”
Shawn Neary, former head coach of the Gillette men’s basketball team, said the loss of athletics will trickle down to other parts of the college, including housing, food service, cleaning, faculty and staff.
“This is a domino effect. You guys have a chance to make a difference and say, let’s diversify our economy,” Neary said. “Let’s give Gillette College a chance. These people in this room will make it happen.”
With all this talk about diversifying the economy, the best tool for communities to do that is through their colleges, Neary said.
Bubba Hall, athletic director for Sheridan College, asked the trustees to “give the communities a chance to save the athletics programs. Give them an opportunity to fund, help, support, whatever they need to do.”
Jason Taylor, the father of Jersie Taylor, who was going to play basketball for Sheridan College this year, said the district has put his daughter and many other recruits in “a tailspin.” They’re now scrambling to find new teams.
“She should be the one who decides when her journey ends,” he said. “It sure as hell shouldn’t be you guys. It was wrong for you to do this.”
The lack of communication has frustrated many in Gillette.
State Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, said everyone knows cuts have to be made, but sometimes problems aren’t solved with “a checkbook.”
“Sometimes it takes sitting down and talking and working through it,” he said. “That’s what I hope we get out of this conversation.”
During the budget process, when things “don’t quite make the cut,” Barlow said he asks communities if they have solutions to save what’s important to them. He asked the board to do a better job of reaching out to people.
“We can find solutions, we can solve problems. But let’s not make any new ones,” he said.
“I’m really saddened that there were actions taken before anyone in Gillette was consulted or asked for any input,” said former legislator and former Gillette College nursing instructor Norine Kasperik.
Former Gillette College basketball player Sydney Prather said she and her teammates have become part of the community and are role models for young kids.
“Basketball’s not just a game, it’s a passion,” she said. “Gillette’s not just a town, it’s a place we get to call home.”
Rob Milne, a chemistry teacher at Sheridan College, pointed out that no other community college districts in the state have cut their athletics programs. He asked if the district is just being more proactive than other districts, “or did something else go wrong?”
Robert Palmer, chairman of the Gillette College Advisory Board and liaison to the district board, was the last to speak before the board approved its budget. He asked the trustees to consider the proposal.
“We are a community college, and you heard from your community,” he said. “We didn’t communicate very well.”
On several occasions, Tribley said more budget cuts could be coming down the road.
“If we’re going to have reductions, if we’re going to face additional difficulties, we have to communicate with our community,” Palmer said.
“The question is not can we succeed with this proposal. The question is will you allow us to succeed by accepting this proposal?” Horning asked.
The answer to that question was a unanimous “no.” Bell asked the board to make a motion to accept the proposal. But after nearly three hours and comments from 36 people, the board did not even consider it.
Trustee Norleen Healy said she was “very moved” by the people who spoke Wednesday night.
“When hard, hard choices have to be made, I have to choose academics and education over all else,” she said. “We are a college, and that’s what we have to do.”
“It’s a tough decision right now, but I see no other options,” said trustee Gary Koltiska.
Some of the trustees had a problem with the proposal because it only addressed Gillette’s athletics and not Sheridan’s.
“I cannot support a solution that is only partial for a district, and a solution that is not sustainable,” said trustee Debra Wendtland.
Board chairman Walt Wragge asked Gillette residents to think bigger than just Campbell County.
“Our purpose here tonight is, what is best for all students in the district? As I listened, I heard many proposals coming from Gillette,” he said. “You spoke very well and I commend you for that. But it just does not speak well for the district.”
“What we need to do is find solutions for the entire district, and not just for one entity,” he added.
Tribley said that as president of the district, he must make decisions that are in the best interest of the district as a whole.
“My job is to not advocate for one part of the district because when that part of the district wins with my advocacy, some other part of the district loses,” he said. “I directed my vice presidents as such, so if they appear to not be as vocal, that’s a directive.”
Bell told the district board Wednesday that Gillette is looking at all of its options.
“We have been very good partners for a long time. We want to continue to be a partner,” he said. “But we are exploring all options, including exiting and creating our own district. We don’t have a choice. We don’t have a seat at your table.”
At least one trustee acknowledged that Gillette College could potentially leave the longtime partnership.
“We know there may be a time when Gillette decides they need to leave the district,” Wendtland said. “I hope it’s not now, but if it is, it’s been a pleasure.”
After the meeting, Gillette College supporters stood in the parking lot, trying to process what had happened.
“We were hoping when they gave us a chance to come with a one-year solution that at least they would listen to it,” Larry Smith said, adding that he’d expected to have sports this fall.
“We have no representation there (on the board),” said Chuck Land. “So we have no voice.”
“We’re at the will of the whisk,” said Nello Williams. “And that’s sad.”
Williams also expressed his disappointment in Tribley.
“The president? He talked in circles, he talked in circles, he talked in circles. He just went on,” Williams said. “If I were Sheridan, I’d really be disappointed in their president and how he handled himself tonight.”
Williams said this wouldn’t have happened under the last district president, Paul Young, because he was invested in Gillette as a community.
“This guy here, none of this was important to him. None of it,” Williams said.
The day before the meeting, Bell said that if the district didn’t accept the proposal, “it’s not about finances anymore. It’s about ending Gillette College’s programs for a political decision. I hope that’s not the case.”
That was the case, he said Thursday.
“It’s just frustrating. We thought we had a good partner. We don’t. That’s very apparent,” he said. “We brought them a solution, and they told us to pound sand, that it wasn’t good enough. Unacceptable.”
At the very least, he would’ve liked to hear some dialogue and negotiation on the proposal.
Cutting the athletics programs is “an easy way out for the board,” Bell said. It would be easy for the commissioners to cut an entire department, but it takes work to creatively budget to maintain services.
“Campbell County is much different than Sheridan County,” he said. “For them to say, ‘We know how you feel’? They don’t know how we feel.”