Building automation instructor Robert Croom works with student Adam Lovell on a controller board with input/output devices during a class in the Building Automation Systems program at Georgia Piedmont Technical College on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, in Clarkston.CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Georgia technical college seeks rebirth after recent struggles

Newton County business leader Dave Bernd was frustrated by what he believed were squandered opportunities by the leaders at Georgia Piedmont Technical College to partner on education projects, but he gave them one last chance.

Bernd met with the college’s new president and other school leaders the day before Thanksgiving 2018 to discuss an idea to start an automation training academy at the college’s Newton campus.

At the time, the college was in financial peril. It was about $5 million in debt for what state auditors described as poor accounting and lax financial management. The college, which has campuses in DeKalb, Newton and Rockdale counties, laid off about a dozen administrators months earlier. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported at length about the problems, such as college officials not pursuing refunds in federal student aid from students who dropped out, according to one audit.

Georgia Piedmont’s mission is to offer courses that train students and adult workers in fields state leaders say employers need, such as accounting, electrical engineering and nursing. It’s designated to serve a three-county area of about 1 million Georgians and has about 4,800 students. It received about $18 million in state funding last fiscal year for education and operating expenses. It offers courses in what the state labels high-demand careers for free through its HOPE Career Grant program.

Through more cuts and layoffs, college leaders say its finances have stabilized. A state audit for a 12-month period ending June 30 found it was more than $2.7 million in the black. The college is no longer on the U.S. Department of Education’s Heightened Cash Monitoring 2 list, a designation where federal officials conduct greater financial oversight of a college. It’s often considered catastrophic for a school. Technical College System of Georgia board members applauded after a progress report during last month’s meeting.

“We stopped spending money on things that didn’t make sense,” Tavarez Holston, named the college’s president in September 2018, said in an interview.

The college still has some work to do. It remains on the lower lever of the Education Department’s cash monitoring list, which is not ideal, but less perilous than its prior designation, Georgia Piedmont officials say. Its enrollment for the Fall 2018 through Summer 2019 semesters dropped by 1,000 students from the prior academic year, with some students leaving the college amid concerns the school would close. Fall enrollment rose this year by 32 students to 3,406, a 1% increase, the college said.

Meanwhile, college leaders are working on new programs and are hoping to get $5.7 million from state lawmakers this legislative session for a 30,000-square-foot logistics facility in south DeKalb County for a commercial driving range they say would be the largest in the state. It’s also hoping to offer some courses in north DeKalb. Another goal: expand a partnership by next year with the Rockdale County School System to train carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and electrical line workers, as well as medical assistants, surgical technicians and other health care professionals.

“I don’t think we would have had these conversations 16 to 18 months ago,” Holston said.

Founded in 1961, its main campus is in Clarkston, about a mile from the DeKalb County jail. High employee turnover in the college’s business office and academic affairs was blamed for some of the school’s problems. Employees were frequently slow in returning financial aid funds to the federal government when students didn’t complete courses. Another problem: The college couldn’t afford the number of workers on the payroll. In all, three dozen employees — mostly administrators — were let go. None were faculty members, officials said.

Holston, previously a vice president at Lanier Technical College, is running a college for the first time. He’s credited with many of the improvements, but he points to the work by his staff and help from Technical College System leaders, such as temporarily running the college’s business office. They also saved money by renegotiating some lease agreements. The system gave the college $5.4 million in a recent three-year stretch before Holston arrived to help the budget as enrollment fluctuated.

DeKalb County Chief Executive Officer Michael Thurmond, who knows about taking over a government organization in turmoil, is encouraged by what he’s seen at the college and hopes more parents and students consider enrolling.

“We have to realize the technical college needs to be included in the conversation of significant institutions of higher learning in DeKalb County,” said Thurmond, who was the county’s school superintendent nearly a decade ago when it had a $14 million budget deficit and faced other problems.

The college now keeps a log of the types of courses students want as part of its goal of better serving them. A popular request is courses involving the film industry.

Student Adam Lovell is not interested in a film career, but the script he’s written for his future plans is lofty. He wants to own a mechanical engineering business. Lovell, 19, from Snellville, sat attentively in instructor Robert Croom’s building automation class one evening last week despite a hectic schedule that includes working 32 hours a week and taking engineering courses at Georgia State University.

He’s taking classes at Georgia Piedmont Tech because the courses here taught him hands-on skills unavailable at Georgia State.

“I was learning how to balance equations, but I didn’t know how to do basic skills,” Lovell said.

In Newton, the college’s team worked with Bernd on his automation training idea, and he said the academy is a success. The college, he said, drifted into offering too many liberal arts courses, but now has refocused on teaching students skills that can result in good-paying jobs for companies in the area that badly need workers.

Bernd, the Newton/Covington vice president of economic development, calls what has transpired since that meeting 14 months ago “the rebirth of Georgia Piedmont Technical College.”

He met again with college officials around Thanksgiving last year. This time, it was to celebrate.

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