College districts to start separation talks


GILLETTE — At least Pax the Pronghorn is safe.

In its soft re-branding of the Gillette Community College District, trustees have said the Pronghorn mascot is here to stay. Beyond that, many other components of establishing the new district remain up in the air.

This past week was as indicative of that as any. But the murky overlap between the new district and Northern Wyoming Community College District may just be the bumpy byproduct of forming the first new community college district in Wyoming since 1968.

“It’s a unique situation,” said GCCD board Chairman Robert Palmer. “There’s not a playbook, unfortunately, for this.”

Last Friday, hours after trustees appointed Janell Oberlander as the interim president of the new district, she was removed from her position as vice president of Gillette College by the NWCCD.

With that change, Oberlander is now the interim president of the GCCD. However, NWCCD still employs all Gillette College employees, who no longer report to Oberlander.

It’s as confusing as it sounds.

Oberlander’s former position of vice president of Gillette College has not been replaced and those who directly reported to her have been reassigned. Her access to NWCCD phones and email were also disconnected this past week.

Although it came as a surprise to some extent, trustees have said it was not completely unexpected.

“I think it’s the natural evolution, it’s the transition process that we’re going through. ... It removes her from being a vice president of (NWCCD), because you can’t be both,” Palmer said. “We’re continuing to make progress with the things we need to do as a new district.”

And there are still many things to do.

Later this month, the details of how to navigate the transition of Gillette College from district to district may be clarified when representatives from both sides of the Powder River meet to discuss terms of a memorandum of understanding.

That agreement is expected to set the terms of Gillette College’s split from NWCCD while it continues to establish itself as an independent district.

The list goes on

With a district president in place, GCCD can move forward with seeking its accreditation through the Higher Learning Commission. Generally, accreditation can be a three- to five-year process, but with Gillette College’s existing programming and infrastructure in place, officials have said it could fall on the shorter end of that spectrum.

“As a board, we can’t do that ourselves,” Palmer said. “We have to have the professionals in place to do that (seek accreditation).”

As the college board’s sole employee, Oberlander can add to her administrative staff to work through the ongoing and upcoming transitional years.

The board approved a $1.02 million preliminary budget to cover the district expenses through the rest of fiscal year 2021-22, which runs through June, and into the beginning of the next fiscal year. A mill levy amount has not been set at this point and would not go into effect until fiscal year 2022-23.

A committee of trustees were tasked with reassessing the district’s branding. They have said the pronghorn mascot is not in jeopardy and are reevaluating the district’s seal and logo in a “soft re-branding” of the college and district.

Arguably the most pressing matter is coming to an agreement on the memorandum of understanding between the two districts. A full-day workshop to discuss those terms is scheduled for Oct. 23 in Buffalo.

A precursor to that meeting occurred last Friday after Oberlander was appointed interim president. Both sides agreed upon a mediator to broker negotiations between the two districts.

In the meantime, Gillette College employees and faculty are still employed through NWCCD. Also, Gillette College is expected to continue receiving accreditation through NWCCD while it seeks its own accreditation, which could take up to five years.

Although details and specifics will be hashed out as the memorandum of understanding conversations develop on Oct. 23, Palmer is optimistic the broadly discussed themes suggested by officials from both districts — of student success and working together — continue to be prioritized.

“Now we want to make sure those words become part of the dialogue we have as the MOU is formed,” Palmer said. “They become words that are part of the document that says how we’re going to move forward and share information.”

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