HAMILTON — On the same day that U.S. Sen. Jon Tester announced that he’ll introduce legislation that would stop the closure and privatization of Montana’s two remaining Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers, Trapper Creek’s students were busy doing what they do best.
They were making a difference in one of the communities in the Bitterroot Valley.
Scattered across the field behind Hamilton’s Daly Elementary School and surrounded by second-graders, Trapper Creek Job Corps students staffed stations for the school’s annual field day. It was the third year the school has counted on the Job Corps to make the event a success.
“We couldn’t do this without them,” said Sam Blowgh, the school’s health enrichment teacher. “They're super valuable to our kids and our program. They always seem to be super excited to work with the kids.”
It would be hard to find a community in Ravalli County that hasn’t been touched in some way by Trapper Creek. In Florence, Job Corps students helped build a softball field complex this spring. On the other end of the valley in Darby, the school was painted by Trapper Creek students.
But now the future of the center currently operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service is uncertain.
Last Friday, just before the start of Memorial Day weekend, the staff and students of the center were told to meet in the center’s gymnasium where they listened to a telephone announcement that said nine of the Civilian Conservation Centers operated by the Forest Service were slated to close, including the Anaconda Job Corps.
The remaining 16, including Trapper Creek, would be transferred from the USDA to the Labor Department, where they would to be turned over to either a private contractor or to the state for operation. The transfer was tentatively scheduled to occur in September.
The 55 USDA Trapper Creek employees would be part of an estimated 1,100-person national federal reduction in force, which is the largest in a decade.
“Professionally, I think it was the most dehumanizing thing I’ve ever seen,” said Laura Wathen, a volunteer counselor at the center. “In a message delivered by speakers, people who had been there for more than 20 years were told they would have to move, be laid off or forced to retire.”
The news came hard at Trapper Creek.
“The staff here are dedicated professionals who have spent the past 20, 25, even 35 years in service to disadvantaged young people,” said Trapper Creek’s director Jesse Casterson. “Young people is all they know. It’s not the buildings or the facility that has made this program a success all these years. It’s the people who work here that make the difference.”
As of Thursday morning, Casterson said he still doesn’t know exactly how the situation will unfold. The center accepted new students this week and plans call for another group to arrive two weeks from now.
“What I know now is that Trapper Creek will continue to operate as a Job Corps, but that it is likely to be operated by someone else at some other time,” he said. “Who that is and when that is, I don’t know. There is not a lot of clarity at this point.”
On the same day the proposal to close nine Job Corps Civilian Conservation Corps Centers across the nation appeared in the Federal Register, Tester vowed to fight.
“Of all the decisions this administration has made, this one makes the least amount of sense,” he said prior to conference call with the press about legislation he introduced Thursday that would prevent the closure or transfer of the remaining two Montana Job Corps centers.
Sen. Steve Daines and Congressman Greg Gianforte sent a letter to U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta last week asking that the decision to close the Anaconda site be reversed and seeking more information about Trapper Creek’s future.
A Daines representative said the senator continues to urge the Administration to reverse the decision. Daines spoke with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue Thursday and planned a call Friday with Acosta.
Tester’s bill would block the Trump Administration from using funds in 2019 or 2020 to close any Job Corps in the country. The bill would also prohibit any federal government agency from making changes to agreements that operate Job Corp facilities, which would prevent Trapper Creek from being privatized.
“This reckless, gutless decision to close and undermine Montana’s Job Corps programs is dangerous to our state and our rural economy,” Tester said. “That is why we have to act, and I urge folks on both sides of the aisle to get behind my bill to save the Anaconda and Trapper Creek Job Corps from the chopping block.”
Since last week’s announcement, Tester said he’s attempted to get additional information on the proposed closure and transfers, but hasn’t heard a word.
“It’s been crickets from both agencies,” he said.
The Job Corps program has enjoyed bipartisan support in the past. Tester said he hoped the Montana congressional delegation will work with him to keep the centers open and operating as normal.
In 2017, 121 senators and congressmen from both sides of the aisle signed a letter expressing concerns about the Employment and Training Administration’s plans to cut student numbers at DOL-operated Job Corps centers by 12 percent. Following the letter, the proposed program-wide cuts were rescinded.
The two Montana Job Corps centers have consistently been among the top performing centers in the country, Casterson said. Of the 125 centers in the nation, Anaconda placed eighth and Trapper Creek is currently 11th.
The centers receive an annual report card. Thirty percent of it is weighed on how students fare while at the centers, which includes earning a high school diploma, completing technical training and improving math and reading skills.
The remaining 70% of the report card focuses on what those things did for them, including getting a job in the trade for which they were trained, and long-term outcomes.
“It’s not my job and we’re not funded to give people a high school diploma,” Casterson said. “I’m not funded to train them. I’m funded and I’m paid to change people’s course in life. To me, while it may be important that they get a diploma and learn a trade, but what’s more important is did it matter.
“I think there is proof out there that it matters,” he said. “These folks have been, up to the time when they enter our program, a burden on the American taxpayer. They are living in poverty, which qualifies them for food stamps, welfare and all those assistance programs.
“Not every student makes it through Job Corps,” Casterson said. “We hold a high standard. If you’re not earning your paycheck, you’re not going to make it through Trapper Creek. For those students who make it, 95 percent are placed in jobs aligned with their trade. I have students walking out of here who are 18 years old and making $20-plus an hour, plus benefits, as a mason, where two years before that they were headed nowhere.”
On Thursday, 20-year-old Robert Walters from Colorado, took a brief break from leading groups of second-graders at the Daly Elementary field day to talk about his journey at Trapper Creek. He’s been there four weeks and already begun to change the way he views his world.
“I was in a really bad place before, but now I feel like I’ve been given a second chance,” Walters said. “I didn’t have the knowledge or the skills to help myself. I’ve already learned a lot that’s going to help me and my family too.”
Walters said he’s not really sure what to expect over the next couple of months following last Friday’s announcement.
“But I feel like now whatever happens, I will be able to face it now,” he said. “I’ll take what Trapper showed me to whatever other place I might end up. For me, Trapper is going to be the place I call home forever. It’s always going to be with me.”