There are Good Things In the Two-Year System But Surprises Still Rule

MONTGOMERY, Ala., June 17, 2007 -- State Board of Education member Mrs. Ella Bell took a few shots at the media during and after the June 14th board meeting related to the Department of Postsecondary Education.  Chastising the media in an interview with, "I'm thinking the mission of journalism is to tell the truth to those that hear it, see it, or read it and not to make the newspaper or the television your own personal avenue for setting and serving a vendetta on the two-year college system."

Bell said during the meeting, "I'm of the opinion the people of the state of Alabama don't know what our system's like..They don't know what our system is about."

"Nobody understands that when Hyundai gets the ISO designation for excellence, half their employee pool comes from Trenholm, so Trenholm has to be doing something that the media's not printing about."

The never bashful Mrs. Bell also took a swipe at the new chancellor saying not only was she only getting bad news from the news media but, "That's all we've been getting from your staff for the last week is all the negative stuff and every now and then we'll see a little nice thing mentioned."

However, one true positive for the system is Chancellor Bradley Byrne's focus on team building, communication, leadership and integrity.  "We are all about integrity.  What I do honest, be accountable."  He knows one of his primary jobs is to restore morale throughout the department and the system.  "We've got to function as a team and to function as a team you've got to get together.  I think the staff has not been as cohesive as it can be.  We're going to keep meeting as a staff."  Byrne has had two meetings of the department staff in three weeks, something many people don't ever remember happening.  Monday, June 18th, the department staff gets together again - this time for ethics training, including the chancellor.

It didn't take Byrne three weeks to start trying to make a dent in the battered morale of the department.  On the day he signed his contract not only did Byrne hold his first staff meeting, he also went around the building trying to find everyone he could to introduce himself to.  That also is something people have told me they do not remember happening before.

At the June 14th board meeting, Mr. Byrne pointed out a particular instance of the system in action where he thought the system was at the top of its game.

The event that pleased the new chancellor so was the reaction to the announcement by WestPoint Home of the closing of plants in Abbeville and Opelika.  The announcement was made the end of May and the plants will be closed by the end of August.  Around 600 workers will be out of work in Abbeville and about 350 in Opelika.

I asked Byrne for a little background.

"The system has had for some time a program in place that when you have a major closure like that and we get notice of it that we have an automatic plan that goes into place to begin to notify those workers of the programs we have available to them for retraining.  And, we actually get whichever school or branch of a school that's nearby to become proactive in reaching out to those workers so they can at least come in and get some sort of counseling or assessment as to what the best route for them is to get the education and training they need to get another job.  And that happened automatically the day that I was there and I was very pleased to see that work like that."

The new chancellor told the State Board of Education, as he participated in his first work session with the board, they would have been proud of the way the system reacted to help the people who now find themselves out of work.

"It was really good for me to sit here and watch when the announcement came out, watch the automatic response.  Our system swung right into action and that's what you want because the people who are going to be affected by this have that initial sense of uncertainty - 'What's going to happen now?'"

Board vice-president Sandra Ray told the board she had read an article that 'quoted a student, one of the displaced workers who made really good comments about changing the direction of her entire life, which is the whole intent of it I guess."

I asked the former state senator late Friday what he would say, outside of the quality people working for the system, was the most positive thing he's found as he tackles the challenges of reforming the new system.

"I would say when I've been looking through the system, efforts to provide workforce training in certain areas.  I've been pretty pleased that in some parts of the state, certainly not all parts, we have some pretty great workforce training programs."

While there are many positives in the system and more to come, it takes money and people to make the positives happen and keep them happening.  The new chancellor discovers on an almost a daily basis that there are several things standing in the way of making the two-year system function as well as it should, from lack of an internal auditing system and no one on staff to handle key duties (Byrne has used the word "depleted" when describing department staffing levels) to the fact that many of the computer systems at the community college level can't communicate and actually share information with the Department of Postsecondary Education, making oversight a near impossibility, especially related to financial accountability.

Mr. Byrne has no idea right now how much it's going to cost to get that little situation taken care of.  "None," he says. "The first thing I had to do was get somebody on board who is in charge of that.  It's going to be Bob Lockwood's job to figure that out.  Now there are some open source solutions that are potential solutions for the problem, but we don't actually know yet which ones will actually work with what we've got.  Certainly an open source solution is cost effective because it's free.  I like free - free is good."

Byrne says, "We're going to be doing a report.  (Bob) Lockwood's going to come back with a report himself to the board.  It may not be at the next work session, but the work session after that, after he's got his feet under him (as the new head of the department's IT function, Lockwood comes over from the Department of Finance)."

"Trying to figure out a solution, one that we can afford is going to be a little tricky, but we will do something.  The board is going to be hearing more about that.  I've talked to all of them individually about it."

Coupled with the problem of non-communication in the computer world is the little surprise Byrne told me he found out about "I think somebody told me, I'm trying to remember now, that day that the board voted to appoint me.  I think somebody at that meeting told me."

And just what tidbit of information did they pass on to the new chancellor?  The fact a contract had been signed to move the Department of Postsecondary Education into the RSA Headquarters building once the new RSA Headquarters building is finished and RSA has moved out of the building they're currently in.

"Now obviously I wasn't in a position to begin to inquire much about it until after I actually started the job.  I've only been actively working on it for the last three weeks.  We can't fund it with our present departmental budget.  I mean we can't.  We'd have to have an increase from the Legislature to the department's budget to pay for it.  There's no question about that."

The one time cost of the move - at least $350,000, including the moving of computer equipment and telephone systems.  Also included in the projection, costs of additional furnishings for the new digs.  But the real sticker shock comes at the $500,000 a year over what the department pays yearly now for the lease at its current location.   Byrne says there's some concern that number may be closer to $600,000.  "We have a concern."  The contract is for a 20-year lease with an approximate start date of October 1, 2008.

Byrne told board members, "I have a lot of concern about this.  I don't know where the money's coming from.  I don't know if we can get out of it.  We're doing a lot of homework.  We're out of space and living on top of one another and we have to take that into account."

Debbie Dahl told board members the new location would include a "200-seat auditorium on the first floor."  She told the board that if extra space was available in the building it could  be sub-leased.

Byrne says, "We're doing our homework on it.  We don't have to worry about it this fiscal year, but we're going to have worry about it soon."

Byrne says his chief concern is "every penny we're spending in this department we're not spending in the colleges and that's where the rubber meets the road."

I asked the chancellor if he was finding a lot of things where it was difficult to "make the dollars work."

Letting out a deep breath, Mr. High Energy, as denoted by one of his staff, or as Byrne likes to say, "That's a nice way of saying I'm driving them crazy," says "There are so many things that have to be redone.  I can't tell you that anything's a surprise.  But there are some real challenges around the system and within the department to do the things that we need to do with some of the dollars that we've got."

"At the same time, we got a hefty increase from the Legislature this year and I'm not going to go crying in my beer about that."

So, there are a lot of good things happening in the Alabama College System and there are a lot of things that need to get better in order for the people in the department to be able to do their jobs.  The new guy in charge is on a mission to make sure the quality people he has working in the system have the tools they need to do their jobs, do them right, and with the audit control functions in place to hopefully prevent some of the abuses that have taken place in the system in the past.

One of Chancellor Byrne's favorite words in the last few days has been the word "proactive."  That in and of itself is a good thing.  And to anyone concerned the revolving door at Postsecondary will keep revolving Byrne says, "I'm sticking.  I'm having fun.  I'm sticking and we'll have a long term approach to things...We'll make our decisions and move on."

The positive stories are out there and they will come.  If you want to help us uncover some of the many positive things going on in the system find out how by looking at the story below.  The negative stories due to ongoing investigations will be reported, but we can look out for the good news as well.

Reported by:  Helen Hammons