Tar Heel Tattler - January 2004

Trouble looms for N.C. textile center
By Irwin Speizer

The North Carolina Center for Applied Textile Technology in Belmont celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. Rep. Debbie Clary, a Republican who represents Gaston and Cleveland counties, is considering a special gift: a cutoff of state funding.

Somebody, it seems, snitched on the center, resulting in a couple of state audits and a string of news stories about its nearly empty classrooms and its moonlighting president. James Lemons boosts his $104,000 salary by as much as $40,000 teaching at other schools, including nearby UNC Charlotte.

Clary is so steamed that she wants to divert the $1.4 million to $1.5 million the school gets from the state each year to other community colleges. The textile center is part of the N.C. Community College System, though it is treated differently. Instead of receiving funds based on enrollment, as do the other 58 campuses, it receives a flat appropriation from the General Assembly.

With nearly 106,000 textile jobs lost since 1990, a school aimed at training workers for that industry may have outlived its usefulness, Clary says. “There are no students. You can’t find them in the parking lot or the classrooms.” She’s not the only one who has noticed. Television and print journalists have exposed the eerily quiet campus of a school that reports an enrollment of 3,873.

Clary has it all wrong, Lemons says. He says he never puts in less than 40 hours a week at the textile center, though he operates on a flexible schedule — approved by his board — that allows him to teach outside classes. And you won’t find many students on campus, he says, because much of the school’s training is done at mills. While mass layoffs in the industry have reduced the need for training new workers, the center has responded by shifting its emphasis to more contract research-and-development work to help the remaining companies compete.

By questioning the need for the textile center, Lemons adds, Clary is attacking the industry at a particularly vulnerable time. If she wants to pick on college training programs, there are other targets, he says. “You mean to tell me we would spend more on cosmetology than to offer some type of training for 125,000 textile employees? Apparently Representative Clary has given up on the textile industry. A lot of us don’t feel that way.”

Clary and her allies, however, are just warming up. Two state audits were scheduled to be completed in January, one examining how the center uses its space and the other looking at finances and Lemons’ working arrangements. If they are negative, Clary will likely use them to go after the funding.

“Something has to change at the textile school,” she says. “The only way to force change with people is to look at their money.”