KANSAS CITY — Funding cuts have forced nine centers that provide technology and education access to rural areas to close or scale back their operations.
Two decades ago, the University of Missouri Extension began operating nine Telecommunication Community Resource Centers with the help of community partners that included school districts and junior colleges. In one case, a hospital was a partner.
The centers — located in the Missouri towns of Mexico, Reeds Spring, Kirksville, Salem, Nevada, Jefferson City, Portageville, Poplar Bluff and the Mineral area — used interactive television to help people access continuing education and for-credit college classes. Some of them offered public access to computers with Internet access.
However, facing a $2 million budget cut from the state, the extension announced in November 2010 it would eliminate the $800,000 in annual funding to the centers. The extension, which had provided the bulk of the centers' funding, gave the communities where the centers are located a year to make other arrangements.
Now, some of the centers are starting to close, and the ones that remain are losing staff. The fate of some remains uncertain.
Rhonda Gibler, associate vice-provost for the MU Extension, said the centers started at a time when college classes weren't widely offered over the Internet and interactive television was cutting-edge. Businesses and the extension itself used the centers to conduct meetings with employees in far-flung parts of the state.
Now more people have high-speed Internet access in their homes, and people can use software applications to make voice calls over the Internet or hold conference meetings.
"As we keep looking at the future, we have to look at what sorts of technologies are the future," Gibler said. "Although interactive television is a valuable resource, we will be likely doing more work in the web environment."
Still, she noted that access to high-speed Internet in rural communities remains a concern. That is why there is talk of placing some of the equipment from the closed centers in places where the community can continue to use it.
Gibler also added that some of the 19 people who worked in the centers got jobs with the extension but others are still looking for work.
"It's not a painless process," she said of the cuts.
Last Friday was the last day that the center in Reed Springs was open to the public . A center in the southwest Missouri town of Nevada has been closed for about two months. The Kirksville center also is slated to close, but the community is looking for ways to continue some of its functions, Gibler said.
Officials are still considering the future of a center located in an MU Research Center in Portageville. The university plans to continue providing the public some access to technology, but people may have to pay more and get less help. Already, one fewer person is working there.
The extension service is no longer covering salaries for staff at centers in Mexico, Poplar Bluff or the Mineral area. But the centers' partners include colleges that will help ensure some services will continue to be offered.
Similarly, the center in Salem in south-central Missouri was operated with the help of a large group of partners that included businesses and the local school district. Those partners will take over the center and operate it. But there will be fewer employees.
The center in Jefferson City was largely run by the Missouri National Guard with the extension chipping in some money so the resources could be available to the public. Gibler said the Guard will continue to make use of the technology.