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MTI president concerned at new Southeast Tech program

SIOUX FALLS — The governor wants an electrician-training program at Southeast Technical Institute, and the state Board of Education gave him what he wanted Monday.

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The 6-1 approval came despite the complaint from Mitchell Technical Institute President Greg Von Wald. He said the normal consultation process wasn’t followed and the new program will compete with MTI’s existing program.

But Southeast President Jeff Holcomb said this is the third time the program has been sought for Southeast. Holcomb said it was blocked the previous times.

Western Dakota Technical Institute in Rapid City and Mitchell already have electrician-training programs.

“It isn’t a capacity problem,” MTI’s Von Wald said. “We have capacity.”

There are eight programs within two hours of Sioux Falls and two programs in Sioux Falls already, Von Wald said. Their combined capacity is 208 slots and six of the eight don’t fill their programs, he said.

“The question is, how can we afford to do this?” Von Wald said. “You can’t manufacture kids. That’s our problem.”

He said 13 to 23 percent of the students in MTI’s electrical programs come from Sioux Falls and the “catch basin” to the south. Von Wald said the presidents from the four public technical institutes normally confer with the state Department of Education before a new program is recommended by the department.

DOE staff member Tiffany Sanderson said “the governor’s office and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development” want Southeast to offer the program. It would start in fall 2015 with 24 slots for a two-year degree.

State Education Secretary Melody Schopp, who is a member of Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s Cabinet and oversees the department, said Sanderson followed “every process” and consulted with all of the presidents.

“In the past the process had been pretty informal,” Sanderson said. “Going forward it will be more formal.”

“Was the governor’s office aware of Greg’s concerns?” board member Patricia Simmons of Sioux Falls asked.

“Yes,” Sanderson said.

State board president Don Kirkegaard, of Sturgis, suggested the board adopt a new two-meeting process for future requests.

Kirkegaard, the Meade County school superintendent, said a new program would be proposed at the first meeting and the board would give its decision at the second meeting.

The state Game, Fish and Parks Commission follows a two-meeting process on rule changes and fee increases.

Scott Reed, the human resources director for the John Morrell meat-packing plant in Sioux Falls, said it’s hard to find trained technicians.

“It is an area we need a much deeper candidate pool to help our business,” Reed said.

He was one of four business people who spoke for the proposal.

Board member Terry Sabers, of Mitchell, said there is “an extreme need” for more electricians but he also wants to ensure the programs are high quality. He said duplication is a concern.

“Are we going to be able to fill the program?” Sabers asked.

Board member Glenna Fouberg, of Aberdeen, said she doesn’t know whether adding Sioux Falls would hurt Western Dakota and Mitchell.

“There are only so many people,” she said.

Tracy Noldner, who is Southeast’s vice president of student affairs, said non-traditional students frequently tell him they can’t commute or move to Mitchell because of family and current jobs.

Kirkegaard asked Holcomb whether waiting until May for a decision would be a problem.

“I wouldn’t say that would mess up our timeline. The only question I would have is what value that would add to the process,” Holcomb said.

Board member Richard Gowen of Rapid City asked for a vote to be held Monday.

“I think we’ve heard the issues here,” Gowen said. “The reality is South Dakota is a very large state. We have centers of population.”

Sabers said Southeast’s staff needs to market the program to young people. Sabers said he doesn’t want it to become like the plumbing program where there is difficulty recruiting.

The board also approved an agriculture aviation option for Lake Area Technical Institute at Watertown.

The nine-month program would train aerial application pilots, technicians and owner-operators.

“There aren’t a whole lot of programs like this in the country,” Deb Shephard, who is LATI’s president, told the board by telephone.

There is a need to find trained replacements for pilots who are nearing retirement, she said.

She called the business “very complex” and said there are many safety requirements that must be met.