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Former tech school workers says job loss is retaliation

RAPID CITY (AP) -- A former Western Dakota Technical Institute employee alleges that officials eliminated three positions in the financial aid office in retaliation for the department's role in the Rapid City school being placed on probation by a...

RAPID CITY (AP) - A former Western Dakota Technical Institute employee alleges that officials eliminated three positions in the financial aid office in retaliation for the department's role in the Rapid City school being placed on probation by an accreditation group.

The positions were eliminated Monday at a Rapid City School Board meeting.

"There is little value being placed on the institution's past record of federal student aid program quality, or in getting enrollment numbers up," said Starla Russell, who was one of the three who lost their job. "This does not speak very well to the integrity of the institution."

Russell said she and other financial aid staff were forthcoming about the school's effectiveness during a campus visit by the Higher Learning Commission, a regional institutional accreditor that serves 19 states, and that school administrators' demeanor toward the department changed after that.

The commission put the school on two years of probation in March after it was found to be non-compliant in three areas relating to student learning assessments, performance, and retention and completion rates. The school was given until June 1 to file a plan of improvement.

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If the school doesn't meet certain benchmarks, the commission will remove Western Dakota Tech's accreditation.

"The probationary status is the mere outcome, in my belief, of a systemic problem at this school, and I do have a responsibility to speak up about it, so that you, as the governing board, can make an informed decision that's beneficial for the students and the community," Russell told the school board.

School President Ann Bolman disputes Russell's claims, telling the Rapid City Journal that the decision to remove the three employees is part of a broader reorganization strategy.

"I would not say that it's having to do with anything except just trying to incorporate new best practices that we haven't tried before at Western Dakota Tech," Bolman said. "It really doesn't have to do with accreditation."

Russell and Bolman accused each other of failing to rely to multiple requests for meetings.

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