Chancellor Byrne Addresses Staffing, Lobbyists, Board and More

MONTGOMERY, Ala., June 5, 2007 -- The new chancellor of the two-year college system, Bradley Byrne, told reporters Tuesday that what he was "trying to put in front of everyone today is to show the public that we're going to operate this system clean.  And, you can't show them that with some little bell and whistle campaign.  You've got to do that in substance.  So we're going to pay attention to substance, but while we're paying attention to substance we're going to tell our story."   MP3 (Entire Press Conference 48 MB)

Byrne's said all along he wants the two-year system to be transparent.  If his actions to date are any indication, he's off to a good start.

Tuesday, Byrne opened himself up in a formal press conference that lasted more than an hour  and frankly I think it was more he wore the assembled press gaggle out than the other way around.  Byrne stayed at the microphone and even afterward to answer every question put to him, only stopping when we temporarily ran out of questions and out of breath.

Something's Missing

Byrne says that now having been in his job for 12 days, "It's hard to say anything's a surprise any more."

But what he's noticed is he has key vacancies in personnel he did not know he had.  "We have some key vacancies in some very important positions at the department, and that came to light as I was meeting with the vice chancellors one-by-one and that's something we've got to move rapidly to fix, because we can't provide the oversight that we're called upon to provide the department if we don't have the personnel in place to do that."

Byrne says he has no one right now "We don't have any one on a fulltime basis.  We have somebody as sort of a secondary thing to look at private school licensure, which is a very important thing that we do.  We don't have anybody on staff right now that's in charge, that's formally in charge of workforce development, which is the number one issue in the state to the governor...I was surprised at the extent of the vacancies and of the enormous need we have to fill some of those positions.  That's something I'm going to be talking about with the board next week and be more prepared then to talk about it more substantively.  "

Byrne was asked whether or not the governor's workforce development plans were just going to  mean that money in the system was just moved from one group of cronies to another.

The chancellor says, "Absolutely not.   No cronies under this administration, the Department of Postsecondary Education and knowing Governor Riley, no cronies under Gov. Riley either."

"We don't have the luxury of dealing with cronies with the level of workforce training needs that are facing us throughout this state right now.  It is amazing to me how many different parts of this state right now are faced with substantial workforce training needs.  And there is no way in the world we're going to meet those needs unless we're squeezing the optimum efficiency out of every dollar we've got. "

"One of the reasons why I was so surprised to hear that we didn't have somebody on staff to deal with workforce training development was that is such a critical need we have right now.  So that's something that I've got to resolve right away so I can have somebody on staff that I'm working with to look hard at where our greatest needs are and make sure we're applying our dollars in the most efficient way we can."

Byrne says the position he's looking to fill in regard to workforce development would be basically a new position.  "There is a position that is in the department nominally but is really somebody funded and run through the governor's office.  It's my understanding that that function primarily was carried out by Dr. Johnson himself.  And so there really wasn't anybody on staff that had that as their primary responsibility.  It may be that that worked perfectly well for Chancellor Johnson; that's not going to work for Chancellor Byrne.  There's  not enough hours in the day for me to do that, which is its own job, and all the other things that I've got to do,  particularly since we've got to ramp up all of our work force training efforts around the state.  So this will be a new position, not something that has happened before."

Byrne says the concept is not new.  "This is something we talked about when I was on the board seven or eight years ago.  There's actually a model that we put together after the federal Workforce Investment  Act was passed in 1997 or '98, I can't remember, but we put together a model of how adult education and workforce training works with the academic, for-credit programs at the schools, and some schools have implemented it."

"But there are a number of places around the state where we haven't and having somebody on staff who is looking at that particular thing and then working with the colleges to help them implement it, I think is critically important right now."

He says he'd like to have that person yesterday, is hoping for the end of the month but "as you start looking for people with these skills, etc.  It may take them a while."

The new chancellor says that although he sees the cost of getting an education in the two-year college system "very affordable," there is a need to do more.  "We need to make college and postsecondary workforce training and adult education more available and therefore more affordable for the people in this state and we're going to continue to work on that."

"I mean I would love to be able to give a scholarship to every person that came to a two-year college.  That's not realistic and we may need to look at our scholarship programs and see if we're meeting some of the more needs-based people that come to our system."

"At the end of the day, everybody in Alabama that wants to get themselves ahead by getting a better education ought to have that availability and we ought to be - the two-year college system ought to be, at the forefront of that."

Operating the Two-Year System as a "System"

Byrne says he is concerned about the two-year system not truly operating as a system but more as a loose federation of players.

"I am worried that it is not a complete system and I believe that it is important that it operate as a complete system and it certainly is my intent to work with the board and with the presidents to make sure we operate as a system."

He says to make the system operate as a system he needs to do a number of things, but he gave reporters what he feels are the "big three."

"Number one, we have to have a good set of policies and obviously we need to review some of our polices in light of what's come out over the last several months."

"Number two, you have to have a chancellor in place, whether it's me or somebody else, who is going to insist that everybody  in the system, beginning with the chancellor, but including everybody in the system - all 9,000 people,  comply with those polices and with the laws of the United States of America and the State of Alabama."

"The third thing you've got to have is you've got to have a department staff that's adequately manned or womaned, I don't know how you say that - personned,  and also adequately trained so that they can provide real oversight.  Somehow we've had a breakdown in this department in our internal auditing system."

"Because some of the things that we're now learning about should have been known and I don't think were known at least by people I've talked to, because the internal audit system wasn't in place to provide it.  The Board of Education and the people of the State of Alabama deserve to have a Department of Postsecondary Education that is going to provide a substantive oversight function and we're going to do that."

"And that's part of what this reorganization in the department is going to have to do and you're going to hear a lot more detail about that next week, hopefully by then I'll figure it out."

Byrne says he wouldn't call what is about to happen a "shakeup.   We may have some lines of authority moving around.  I'm really right now more focused on trying to fill vacancies.  I mean you can't expect people to be accountable for the jobs when they don't have the people working in their divisions that they need."

Unhealthy Relationship?

An issue that took up a good portion of time at Turesday's press conference was the relationship between between the two-year Alabama College Systems President's Association and lobbyist Bob Boothe.

Boothe is paid with college funds by the two-year-school presidents and according to the Birmingham News, Boothe is paid at least $150,000 in public funds for his efforts through a group in which he is the group's only member.

Byrne was asked about his relationship with Boothe and said he'd "had a relationship with Bob Boothe since I served on the board 13 years ago.  What's my relationship with him? I know him.  He does not work for me."

"He works as I understand it on contract with the College President's Association.  He does not work for, nor is he answerable to the chancellor of postsecondary education."

Byrne went on to say "without responding to the particular relationship" that  "I think one of the policies we need to look at is our lobbying policy and whether or not it's being followed and whether it needs to be strengthened."

Asked if he couldn't just order the relationship between the association and Boothe to be severed, Byrne responded, "If that relationship is not in keeping with the board's policy on lobbying, yes I can and I will.  But I haven't reached that conclusion yet."

"As I understand it the President's Association is not funded by dues paid by the presidents out of their own paychecks.  It's money that comes directly from the schools in our system."

"I can't stop any individual that works in our system from following their First Amendment protected political rights with their own time and their own money.  I mean they have  fundamental right to do that.  If I had the right to do that I wouldn't want to, but I don't have the right to do that.  The difference is that when you're on system time or using system money or resources then you have to stay in compliance with the lobbying policy of the system and I will insist on everybody in the system doing that."

"But once again, Mr. Boothe does not work for the chancellor.  He does not work for the department.  He's not under my direction or control.  The question is - is his employment by the Presidents Association in keeping with our lobbying policy?  That's something I'm not prepared to address yet."

"I'm responsible for the system of postsecondary education.  And if there's a policy in this system that's not being followed, it's my obligation to make sure that it is and ensure compliance."

Asked if he could order the presidents not to spend money on the organization that's funding a particular lobbyist, Byrne says, "If it's not in compliance with the board's policies sure I can.  That is an issue among many that I am looking at."

Byrne did not have the specific board policy on lobbying in front of him but he did say, "My memory is that it puts the chancellor in charge of lobbying and it specifically prohibits anybody in the system from using system resources to employ a lobbyist.  So the chancellor would be the enforcing authority for that."

Ask by a member of the media if it did not seem that on the surface that's exactly what the presidents have done, the chancellor says, "Without investigating it more I can't say that what you're saying is absolutely correct, but there does seem to be an appearance of that."

He says presidents have "discretionary authority over some of their money in some ways, but don not have the discretion use their money in violation of board policy or in violation of state or federal law obviously."

Byrne's Relationship with Lobbyists While in the Senate

Byrne says he did have contact with presidents acting as lobbyist or contract lobbyists while he was in the Senate.   Asked if he saw that as a violation of policy Byrne said straightly, "I didn't think about it.  No, I did not think about it.  I told you it did happen.  I did have contact.  I wasn't thinking about whether they were authorized or not,  I was thinking about the substance of what they were telling me, which is what I do with all the lobbyists.  I mean if you sit there and try to figure out who is this guy representing and if you try to go through all that gyration, you'll end up making the wrong decision.  I was thinking about the substance of what they were asking me to do."

"I was the sponsor for a bill that put the chancellor and the superintendent of education on the Super Computer Authority.  Did I think it was appropriate for the chancellor and the superintendent of education to be on the Super Computer Authority?  Yes I did.  I think it was important for them to be on there.  So it was the substance of what they were asking me to do as opposed to who do they represent and what are the politics of that that I responded to."

Board Members, Small Groups, and a Separate Board

The new chancellor was asked about thoughts in the past by one of his predecessors at looking into setting up small committees on the State Board to discuss certain issues before they came before the full board.

Byrne says he had not heard that but, "I remember when I was on the board we talked about having committees, and it didn't go over well with the board because if you were on this committee you wouldn't necessarily know what is going on with that particular issue, etc.  So it would be my intention that the board would continue to function as a committee of the whole on everything."

"Now there are some specific spot needs that you have like you have to have a committee to deal with the chancellor on his contract or something like that.  But when you're talking about policy initiatives, I think that my view would be that the board would continue to meet as a committee of the whole and have the discussions, the very active discussions that they have, going forward."

Asked whether or not postsecondary needed it's own board he didn't find the idea appealing.

"First of all I believe that's the prerogative of the board and the Legislature...Personally when I was on the board,  I thought it was good that there was one board for K-12 and postsecondary.  I did not feel when I was on the board that it was too much work for me to come to the board meeting twice a month, participate in the work sessions and I saw the value of stitching together K-12 and postsecondary.  Different states do it different ways."

"You can find different models in just about any state you go to.  But I think the model we use in Alabama can work.  The board certainly is willing to do the work and I can tell you that from talking to them.  I don't think the problem has been the fact we didn't have a separate board.  I'm not sure the board had the information they should have, they needed to have in order to make the decisions."

Asked for examples of how the stitching together of K-12 and postsecodary worked in the real world, Byrne pointed out a couple of examples.

"We've got a program right now in some high schools in Mobile and Baldwin counties that start high school students off in sort of a pre-aviation program and then they transfer over to our aviation college program...and that is a tremendous need for the aerospace industry, finding people that want to go in the aerospace industry as workers and to train them as early as high school.  Another example is we have a number of schools at colleges around the state that have dual enrollment programs around the states with high schools where high school students are getting college credit for taking courses like calculus that they're not required to take in high school but they choose to take in high school.  That's both giving them a good education in calculus but also giving them some college credit which will save them or mom and dad some money later. "

In spite of a press conference that dwelled more on the negative things in the system than the positive, the chancellor told the assemblage of reporters,"I love doing this.  It was fun for me."  He has promised to keep coming before the media and answering questions.  For the new guy in charge those questions will keep coming, including the questions over whether or not he will be able to keep his job.

Tuesday, in Montgomery County Circuit Court attorneys for the State Board of Education filed their official answer to the complaint filed by the AEA which claims Byrne was appointed in violation of board policies and the Alabama Open Meetings Act.  Byrne has vowed to not let his tenure as chancellor be ruled by the litigation and move full speed ahead in his efforts to move the system forward.  Information on Tuesday's filing and other portions of the new chancellor's press conference can be found in the stories below.