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Extension seeks regional centers

Casey will sort through applications

By Janet Kubat Willette

jkubat@agrinews.com

ROCHESTER, Minn. -- The location of Extension's new regional centers should be announced by mid-July.

Communities interested in housing a regional center must submit an interest form to the University of Minnesota by June 25.

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Educators will be sent an interest survey in July and will receive reassignment letters in mid-August. The new centers will open Jan. 2.

Criteria for selecting the sites, mailed June 6 to county board chairs across Minnesota, gives preference to existing U of M facilities and sites where partnership opportunities exist with other educational institutions. An active commitment from the host community and a strong technology connection are among other criteria.

The move to regional centers was spurred by counties that said they wouldn't be able to fund an Extension office, said Extension dean and director Charles Casey. Rather than have an office here and one there, Extension leaders decided to expand on the regional concept began last year.

"We want to work with county governments, we want to work with others to make Extension available across the state," Casey said.

The regional concept brings opportunities and makes it easier for campus faculty to make connections, he said. Many found it overwhelming to make contacts in every county.

Casey also expects efficiencies to emerge in registration, enrollment and newsletter preparation.

In three to five years the centers could grow to be much more than Extension offices, Casey said. They could become gateways for the U of M around the state.

Focus on core mission

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Extension has been criticized for expanding too far beyond its traditional services, he said. Extension is now going to focus more on quality and providing a link to the U of M and may not offer programs to meet every need.

"We have to have relevant, valuable programs to meet local needs," Casey said.

Casey pledged that the new delivery system will clearly outline responsibilities of all involved and what programs will be available.

The new system gives counties more choices, Casey said. They will be given a menu from which to select service options. They will be able to choose whether or not to support an office or hire a 4-H coordinator.

"Obviously, counties have some tough choices to make, but I also see opportunities here they didn't have in the past," he said.

Casey said that counties will want to have at least a half-time position to continue to provide a high quality of service to 4-H families.

"The 4-H program needs to be local," he said. "You just can't have a quality program without it based at the local level."

State funding reductions may mean a new statewide membership fee for 4-H. Some counties charge an activity fee to participate in 4-H, but there is no statewide fee. A report on the issue is due July 1.

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Program fees are also expected to increase as the organization strives to raise $2.5 million annually to invest in technology, new programs and salaries.

"We can't do it on vapors," Casey said of providing education.

Staff coping

Extension educators have been coping with an uncertain future for months.

Several Extension educators were laid off last year and many others took early retirement packages. About 20 positions were cut earlier this year on the St. Paul campus. Retiring campus faculty have seldom been replaced over the last three years, Casey said.

Staff have remained dedicated.

"We're not seeing an abnormal number of people who are leaving," Casey said.

Kay Lovett, county Extension director for Olmsted County, admitted there is some uneasiness among staff.

"It's difficult living with this change and not knowing where you're going to be," she said.

No additional layoffs have been announced, Casey said. There are about 225 Extension educators and county Extension directors across Minnesota.

On the Web: www.extension.umn.edu

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