MARTINSVILLE — Officials who oversee a struggling state higher-education center in Martinsville met Friday to plan the agency’s future, and lamented the lack of assistance they said they receive from a nonprofit group whose mission is to help them.
New College Institute opened in 2006 with a purpose of helping people in Martinsville and Henry County — one of the poorest areas of the state — earn college degrees and get job training skills. But programming and college instruction at the state-funded center have dwindled to nearly nothing, despite millions of dollars from the state in recent years, a Martinsville Bulletin investigation showed this month.
At the beginning of the retreat, state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, NCI board chairman, said the news report “should motivate us to make some great decisions going forward.”
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Here are some of the key issues NCI officials say they’re working on now:
- They plan to offer a one-day “sea survival” training class at a quarry about 90 minutes from Martinsville as part of their training in wind turbine safety. Former NCI interim executive director Karen Jackson launched wind turbine safety training at NCI, in which wind companies send workers from other states to Martinsville for the class. But no classes have taken place at NCI since early July.
- Most of NCI’s partnerships with four-year colleges to offer education in Martinsville lapsed or ended during the COVID-19 pandemic. Christina Reed, interim executive director of NCI, said the center will re-establish an agreement with Bluefield University to offer a master’s degree in counseling. Some classes would be held at NCI, and some would be distance learning. “We will be renewing the [memorandum of understanding] with them, hopefully in December,” Reed said.
- NCI staff said that in the next few months, they plan to begin offering training programs for electric utility linemen and in fiber broadband.
- NCI has a pending application to the state for a planning grant that could lead to a “lab school” offering classes for high school students. If the planning grant is approved, NCI would apply to host the school.
NCI officials spent a lot of time talking about their offshore wind turbine training classes, which last a week. They said the training has the potential to bring revenue to NCI because trainees pay tuition.
Students who fly into the area for the training and stay in Martinsville will soon be able to do the “sea survival” training on water, which NCI officials said they hope will bring more trainees overall. The training is certified through an international organization and is provided at 43 locations in North America, and the “sea survival” class is taught in seven locations.
A contract for NCI to use the yet-to-be-named quarry for that training is under review by the attorney general’s office.
Hubert Harris, a new member of NCI’s board and a former chief of staff at Virginia State University, told NCI staff that the board needs details at future meetings about enrollment numbers and revenue.
NCI has 27 full-time positions, but only 12 of them are filled right now; the board wants to hire a new executive director before filling some jobs. NCI’s board has used an interim director since July 2019 — first Jackson and then Reed, who took on the role in July.
The board went into closed session Friday to talk about hiring a new executive director.
The Bulletin also reported this month that the officials who run NCI say they can’t get questions answered from New College Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to support NCI. And, NCI officials say, the foundation isn’t working to find out how it might help NCI or students who might attend classes.
Neither Kevin DeKoninck, the executive director of New College Foundation, nor any member of its board attended Friday’s retreat or a Thursday NCI reception.
Reed, the NCI interim executive director, said she “cannot get a yes or no answer” from the foundation about whether the foundation has locked down $7.5 million of its assets that came from the commonwealth purchasing NCI’s building from the foundation in 2020. But she said it appears that’s what the foundation had done.
Stanley and NCI board vice chairman Richard Hall told the board about myriad problems and disagreements NCI has had with its foundation.
“We all live here — why can’t we just work together?” said Hall, the only member of the board who lives in the Martinsville-Henry County area. He said he even had spoken with the attorney general’s office and looked into whether NCI could start a new foundation.
But even after former interim director Jackson tried to improve communication with the foundation, it’s déjà vu, Hall said.
“I’m pretty damned tired of doing the same thing over and over again,” Hall said.
The Bulletin’s investigation “put some sunshine on this whole thing,” he said.
Hall said he can’t get straight answers from DeKoninck, a pastor who lives in Tennessee.
“Every time I ask a tough question, I get a Bible verse,” Hall said. “It’s just weird.”
Two NCI board members who missed the board’s only previous meeting of the year in June — Catherine Tanner Brown and Maria Pia Tamburri — were absent again Friday. Del. Kathleen Murphy, D-Fairfax, was absent Friday, and Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, couldn’t attend the meeting because of Senate business. Del. Les Adams, R-Pittsylvania, attended half of the retreat.
Martinsville Speedway President Clay Campbell was the speaker at a Thursday evening dinner for NCI’s board at Hamlet Vineyards in Bassett, and a tour of the speedway was scheduled at the conclusion of the retreat Friday afternoon, including a lap around the track. But the board didn’t have enough time to get to the tour.
Martinsville Bulletin staff writer Bill Wyatt contributed to this report.