At least a pair of residents are upset at the direction the Campbell County Cemetery District is headed.
Gene and Patricia Bertch showed up to the Campbell County Commission meeting last week to voice their displeasure with the Cemetery District, particularly with its summer concert series and the sculpture walk programs.
Patricia Bertch said her family owns 16 plots on the hill at the cemetery, and that she was told that it would be a relaxing and meditative place.
“What we got was Gillette’s newest beer garden,” she said, referring to the Tuesday night acoustic concert series at Mount Pisgah.
Food and beer are sold at the event, but no one can bring their own alcohol or leave with a beer in their hands.
Gene Bertch said there are people buried in the cemetery who “have died tragic deaths” because of alcohol.
“Selling alcohol in our cemetery shows a lack of respect for those families and those that are buried there,” Gene said. “What is wrong with us now? Is nothing sacred?”
“There is no way beer should be there, or music,” Patricia said, adding that with the concerts, there are now “people rocking out” at the cemetery.
Cemetery District board member Dean Vomhof said he has a problem with the alcohol on cemetery grounds, but pointed out that it was a decision that had been made before he joined the board. And he was on the fence about the music, because he wasn’t sure if it was really the right thing for the cemetery to do. So he went to the first concert.
“I went out there on a Tuesday, and I have to say, I was very surprised. It was very nice,” he said. “The music was low-key. Go, take a look at it, see what you think. It’s not done to disrespect anybody.”
Gene Bertch hinted that if the Cemetery District won’t address his concerns, perhaps another group could make an effort to intervene.
“It has been said the commissioners don’t want to micromanage county boards. This is not a case for this argument,” he said.
Commissioners have no control over the cemetery board’s decisions because it is an elected board.
Jim Hastings, president of the Cemetery District board of trustees, said the Campbell County Chamber of Commerce and Gillette Main Street are handling the alcohol sales. The board knew that it might cause some controversy.
“This initially has been kind of an experiment on partnering with the community to offer some summer events outside, and so our intent from the very beginning was to watch this very closely and see how it went,” Hastings said.
Hastings said about 125 people attended last week’s concert and there was no negative feedback.
“We understand two very important things: One is not everyone will agree with the decisions we make,” he said. “But the other is, we are always very cognizant of the sanctity of the grounds.”
There are four more concerts left in the series. They take place from 6-9 p.m. each Tuesday through Aug. 17, which is the date of the final concert.
Patricia Bertch also criticized the district’s sculpture program.
“They’ll throw anything in there,” she said of the works chosen to display. “Go up there! Nothing matches. This isn’t nice Wyoming town, this is throw anything you like. Modern, guitar players, it’s disgusting. There is no rhyme or reason.”
In the summer of 2018, Bertch and a friend criticized a sculpture titled “Shovel Shoe Henge” that had been donated to the cemetery. It’s comprised of two archways made of crawler shoes from mining shovels used at Black Thunder mine.
Since then, the art at the cemetery has continued to get worse, Bertch said, and that she’s talked to “tons of people,” and that not one of them thinks it’s respectful.
“It’s progressively getting more liberal and more secular. It’s like we’re chasing out any Christian values we have,” she said. “This is Gillette, Wyoming. This isn’t Denver. We’re tired of this progressive stuff.”
Editor’s note: Janell Oberlander, the vice president of Gillette College, talks about what changes to expect if Gillette College splits from the Northern Wyoming Community College District to form its own. This is the third of a series of Q&A reports leading up to the Aug. 17 special election for a new community college district around Gillette College.
Q: If the vote passes and Gillette College becomes independent, what are some of the noticeable changes people can expect to see?
A: I think it’s going to be new to all of us. We’re all anticipating and we’re all thinking about what that’s going to look like. However, there are some specifics that we know, because of state statute, are going to happen. We know that, if it passes, we will have an elected board of trustees. We will have seven members who are elected to oversee and govern what will be the Gillette Community College District. Once that happens, meetings are open to the public, whomever the board decides to hire as their president and CEO and that executive team will have a lot of work to do with policies and procedures.
These buildings are all owned the way they’re owned. Right now, the leases are written to the Northern Wyoming Community College District so we would need to go through that process of leasing. Initially, through that first phase, I don’t know that, on the outside, the community will see a lot of change, because so much of that work, especially during that transition, will be internal. But certainly at the board meetings, when policy is being approved, when the CEO is hired — all of that is done in public view. That’s not done in a way that the community won’t be able to see.
Then, of course, we start the accreditation process, and that’s an entirely different realm. I think initially, you’re not going to see too many changes, but as we progress, when we start getting all of our programs re-approved to go through the approval process, that is when we can bring on new programs. We certainly work with our industry to make sure our programs are up to date.
They’re serving the needs of our workforce, our workforce meets the needs of industry, what are some of the new programs that we’re going to need as our economy transforms? I think that’s where our community will start to see some changes.
Q: The college now has a Gillette College Advisory Board, and the community would elect a board of trustees. What is the difference between those boards and what would happen with the current advisory board?
A: We have a lot of advisory boards at Gillette College. We have the Gillette College Advisory Board, which really oversees everything we’re doing at Gillette College. That board works with me, works with the executive team on strategic planning in Gillette. They were also instrumental in building this campus as you see it now. The chair gets to sit and report to the board in Sheridan.
They have bylaws that they operate on. The board of trustees will have to decide if that’s still an advisory board. It’s a good group. It’s a good group for discussing to get input and it’s made of local community members who really have the best interests of the college at hand.
The advisory board doesn’t employ any employees, but the trustees will employ the president of the district as well as set the mill levy for the district and approve the policies and procedures. They’re instrumental to the accreditation process, they’re instrumental to programming.
Q: So the elected trustees will ultimately decide what becomes of the current advisory board?
A: They’ll have to decide if that’s an entity that they want to keep, to bring forward input. It’s a good group of people.
Q: If the vote passes, what programming changes could occur at Gillette College and when could those changes begin?
A: The changes to the programs, certainly, will be dictated by industry. We want to make sure that the programs we have are viable so when people graduate, they’re finding work. We also know that we have transferable degrees, where people come here the first two years and transfer on. We want to ensure that those articulation agreements, meaning the credits a student takes here, transfer to the University of Wyoming or other colleges we have partnerships with.
When we start looking at programs, and start looking at what we want to bring or what we want to change, we want to make sure all those partners know, understand and support it.
There are lots of conversations with industry partners right now who are expecting more skilled trade types of programs, which is certainly a very viable option for us to look at. Whether the district does that on its own or partners with other institutions, I think all of those options are on the table.
We know our economy is transforming and we as an institution of higher education need to be prepared for that. We’re learning as we go. For example, if we got a nuclear power plant here, that’s a whole new skill set, those are whole new technicians. So we would look to industry to tell us and help guide those decisions on what programs we need.
Q: When could those program changes begin?
A: Should this pass, the board of trustees for the new district, along with the board of trustees for the Northern Wyoming Community College District, are going to have to work together to create the agreement that allows us to continue to operate as an institution that’s accredited as we seek our independent accreditation.
During that time, we’re going to need to put in place our curriculum and standards process, our approval processes. But under that agreement, we certainly could be bringing new programs to the table. Faculty are instrumental to that process. Then it would go through the board of trustees up through the state.
Q: So you wouldn’t necessarily need to wait to receive accreditation to put those programs in place?
A: Not necessarily, but it will become easier once that happens.
Q: Expansion of the nursing program has been mentioned a lot lately. Is that an option as an independent district, and could it happen if the college stayed part of NWCCD?
A: We’ve talked about it and we’ve had lots of good conversations with our nursing staff, nursing advisory board committee, our partners at Campbell County Health and, of course, there are other clinics in Gillette in need of all levels of nursing.
To expand that program, there’s a plan in place. There’s a plan that we know how we will go about doing that. It involves more faculty in order to make that happen. It’s certainly a need and something we’ve been talking about. For almost three years already, we’ve been having that conversation. We’re excited about that possibility, we’re excited about the opportunity for our community to have an expanded nursing program. I know we’ve had conversations about a four-year degree in nursing. We have an excellent partnership with the University of Wyoming and it’s very seamless. We have students who are finishing their two-year degrees at the same time they’re completing their four-year. So it’s a very seamless process.
The thing to keep in mind as we go through this transition, should we go through this transition, is that our nursing program is program accredited. Once we get our institutional accreditation, our nursing program will have to go through its own program accreditation before it’s functioning, basically, independently outside of the NWCCD accreditation.
Q: Will that happen concurrently?
A: We’ll have to get institutional accreditation first, then they’ll start the process right after that.
Q: So, even after institutional accreditation, it will continue to be accredited through NWCCD until it receives program accreditation. What are the implications of that?
A: I think it’s the same as what we’re going to go through for these first initial few years as we build our own institutional accreditation. It’s really about partnership. The board of trustees in Sheridan are good people. I think we’re going to have a good partnership. It’s going to work well. We’re going to make sure that not only our students are served, the faculty are taken care of, but also the students at the NWCCD are taken care of.
Q: Could independence lead to more collaboration with UW and what could that look like?
A: The governor, Mark Gordon, has a new initiative out called the Wyoming Innovation Network. I know there’s work happening with that. That would allow us as an independent district to engage in that process. That collaboration is really exciting for a lot of different areas within the college. Once Gillette College becomes independent, I think that opens the door for more collaboration.
Q: What, if any, changes in enrollment could independence bring?
A: All colleges want to grow. That’s a goal of all colleges, to grow their enrollment. We serve our community. Eighty percent of our students come from Campbell County and we’re very proud of that. We also have a large population of dual and concurrent enrolled students; it’s a great partnership with the Campbell County School District, and we’re very proud of that. But we also want people to have access to higher education, we want them to easily have access to higher education. If that means other students want to come, we will certainly welcome them with open arms, absolutely.
Q: So being independent doesn’t help or hurt that cause?
A: It’s a continuation and it’s a continual goal.
Q: What might happen with Inspiration Hall, the dorm that was unused by students this past year?
A: Inspiration Hall is not open right now. We probably won’t open it this fall for students. We just don’t have the on-campus student population right now. It’s growing over what it was last year. Students who live in Campbell County are certainly welcome to live on campus, we welcome them to be here.
I don’t know that becoming independent would affect that.
Q: Given there are partial ownership arrangements on these buildings, what would happen with the state or NWCCD-owned portions in the event of a split?
A: There is state statute that dictates that. It’s very prescribed on how that takes place. There are also already lease agreements. All of those leases will have to be rewritten to reflect the new district. That would be another piece that would have to happen pretty early on. That’s part of that agreement and dictated by the state statute on how the building ownership will come into play.
But what it basically says is the assets and the debt transfer to the new district.
Q: Would sports come back and what would that process look like?
A: We still have rodeo and the other program that went away was Energy City Voices, which was the collegiate choir program. All of those programs added diversity to our campus and to our community, which is important not only for our campus, but the greater community.
Bringing those pieces back is a strategic decision, not only by the administrative staff, but by the board of trustees, because those programs have to be funded. So in order for us to determine how that’s going to happen, it really has to be part of a strategic decision and strategic conversation of if, when and how we’re going to bring those back.
In order to offer collegiate activities under the NJCAA, you have to be accredited. The Gillette Community College District will be accredited under the Northern Wyoming Community College District, so that should not be an issue. It really is about what, how and when? Those are all strategic decisions. Do I think it will happen next fall? I don’t know. The board of trustees, I guess, could make that decision, but I can’t speak for a board that’s not elected yet.
What’s most important to me is that it’s strategic and that we’re doing it for the right reasons. And I think those right reasons for me come back to access to education. When we offer those kind of activities, it provides access to education for some students who would never, ever, have the opportunity to go to college.
Q: One of the roles of the trustees is to hire a president/CEO. Essentially, that is your current job. So, what’s next for you and your job? If it passes, would you try and stay with NWCCD or put your name in for president of GCCD?
A: I am very fortunate because I have had a phenomenal career. I have been in higher education for 27 years already and I have had great mentors and great leaders I’ve had the opportunity to work for. We will see what the board of trustees decides. It’s their decision.
If given the opportunity? Gillette is my home community. I came back to Gillette to work at Gillette College.
We’ll see what the board of trustees has to say. I’m certainly happy to support them and help them out should they choose to go in that direction. We have a good group running for the trustees. They will have the best interest of the institution at heart and we’ll go from there.