MONTGOMERY, Ala., July 4, 2007 -- I was otherwise engaged last week blogging the Siegelman/Scrushy hearing and did not get to attend the State Board of Education meetings. However, I did have a couple of brief conversations during that time with Chancellor Bradley Byrne and brought you the story of the director of the nursing program's resignation at Bishop State.
In an effort to get caught up on events in postsecondary world, I had a lengthy conversation with the chancellor late Tuesday afternoon, July 3, who was gracious enough to take questions by phone while on a "working vacation."
Presidents Kennedy and Rogers
Bishop State President Dr. Yvonne Kennedy and Shelton State President Rick Rogers are being allowed to retire with generous retirement plans and benefits in spite of the fact reports by review teams from the Department of Postsecondary Education indicated major problems at their institutions under their leadership.
I asked Byrne, why, in light of the problems, Kennedy is going to be allowed to carry the title, "President Emeritus." State Board of Education member Stephanie Bell said the title "President Emeritus" was "usually provided to people who deserve it." Additionally, I asked Byrne why Mr. Rogers is being allowed to wait a few more months to retire giving Rogers an added $200 month to an already generous retirement benefit of about $7,600 per month.
As to President Rogers and his now more than golden parachute despite problems at Shelton State, I asked Byrne how he felt the average Alabama worker would feel about Rogers being allowed to hang on and receive an extra benefit in light of what some may consider inadequate job performance.
I then asked the head of the two-year system if the way he handled the Kennedy and Rogers situation was establishing a precedent for the way things would be handled in the future:
Stephanie Bell says of Byrne's decision, "I think we can go overboard pleasing individuals who should not have been there...That was the problem with Corts, he never would recommend firing...I don't think we need to set a precedent and negotiate. They've done some things clearly inappropriate. I had some real problems (with Byrne's decision)...Although I think it's good to get them out...Still he (Rogers) is not even working - we're paying him for not working."
So was the retirement option allowed to stave off possible lawsuits from the two presidents?
Flextime Policy and Lobbyists
A DRAFT flexible work schedule policy was presented to the Board for consideration last week which reads as follows:
I asked the chancellor if the draft policy would change much and to explain the thinking behind the policy:
Byrne has said previously the double-dipping policy related to state legislators will be brought before the board in August.
Another issue that has created a great gnashing of teeth, particularly among some college presidents, is the whole issue of lobbying and the Alabama College System's Presidents' Association's relationship with lobbyist Dr. Bob Boothe, who was being paid $14,000 per month for his work, taxpayer money. Byrne had said all along that if he found the relationship was not in keeping with established policy he would end that relationship.
On June 21, Byrne signed a memo subsequently sent to all the college presidents regarding "Payment of Management Fees for Governmental Relations."
The one paragraph memo reads as follows:
Byrne says the memo was "just telling the presidents they have to adhere to the policies that exist and they weren't doing that previously with the practices they had." So is Byrne going to hire a lobbyist?
Word going around was that Boothe was going to work for the system on a part-time basis, so I asked Byrne if he had heard that and if that was something he was considering.
General Issues Related to Shelton State
I moved on to ask the chancellor about some issues related to Bishop State and Shelton State. In the April report on Shelton State there was mention of an audit being conducted by the Examiners of Public Accounts. I asked Byrne if he had gotten the results of that audit yet. "I have not. That must mean it's not finished yet." He says the audits usually take "not more than a matter of months" but "when they do a special audit like that, they're doing those around their regular audits, so they have to fit them into their schedule."
One of the problems referenced in the report on Shelton State had to do with the college's relationship with Theatre Tuscaloosa. According to the report:
Byrne told the college presidents at Orange Beach that they could not let other things, like their involvement with the existing cultural, civic and athletic life of their communities become their main focus. I asked Byrne if he was satisfied that problems related to situations like the relationship between Shelton State and Theatre Tuscaloosa were being fixed.
Relationship Between Colleges and Foundations
The issue with foundations was an issue addressed in the review reports for both Bishop State and Shelton State. As to what is being done to resolve apparent problems related to foundations and their relationships to the colleges, Byrne responds:
Document Retention, Information Access, Direction of Workforce Development
One of the issues apparent in the reports related to Bishop and Shelton State is the fact the schools were not keeping proper records. I asked Byrne if he thought this might be a problem throughout the system.
One of the major issues and first surprises Byrne found when he became chancellor was the inability for the chancellor's office to have ready access to information, particularly financial information, in a timely manner from the colleges the chancellor is supposed to be overseeing. This, of course, greatly hampered any ability to have a proper internal audit function.
To that end Dr. Bob Lockwood has been brought back on board to deal with a number of issues related to information technology.
Byrne says Lockwood is moving things along "pretty well. This DAX system will work to get the academic and student information and that's something we do at the Super Computer Authority, which is pretty cost effective. And he's got a solution for how we get real time information, at least on a monthly basis, about the financial information about all of the schools in the system. Hopefully by the end of the year, we'll not only have all of that up, but it'll also be done in a way we can put it on our Web site, so it will be public information."
"He's going to do open source on the financial stuff, but the DAX program is something he had already worked out a couple of years ago with the Super Computer Authority and it got shelved for some reason."
With the chancellor's stated mission for the system being focused on workforce development and the high-tech jobs coming into the state, I found it odd that the career field of study seemingly preferred by the largest number of Bishop State students and at some other institutions around the state was barbering and cosmetology. I asked Byrne if this was fair to the students and whether or not the schools were doing a good enough job explaining to students the opportunities available in other areas, where, in fact, the wages the average student might be paid are probably greater.
Chancellor's Discretionary Fund
Another topic addressed with the Board last week during the work session was an update regarding plans for the chancellor's discretionary money. The latest report to the board showed $5,836,300 in monies divvied up to go to the schools and Alabama College System programs. Byrne has about "$10 million left" to decide how to distribute.
He says at the beginning of the fiscal year, "There was $57 million...and $40 million of that I guess was actually already spent by Tom Corts, so when I got here there was only $17 million left. The money that I've spent so far mostly went to trying to achieve equity among the colleges based upon a formula that Debbie Dahl and I went over and made sure was an objective way of looking at things."
Byrne told me a new formula for the distribution of the discretionary funds was needed because "we have basically had the formula for funding our colleges frozen since 1995, which means if you're a college like Calhoun or Faulkner that's had a growing enrollment, you're actually getting less per FTE than the other schools, because you've had growth during that period of time and others have not or have not had the same (growth) rate. So, the whole reason for putting that money out there was not only to have some equity this year, but the Legislature actually authorized me to make it continuing, which means that changed the formula for next year and for the coming years. So virtually all of that money went out for that."
This discretionary money is operation and maintenance money which is for general operating revenue, which according to the chancellor goes to pay for things like instructors, the cost of buildings and maintaining buildings, the ancillary services for students, etc.
Byrne advised, "A little bit of money, I want to say about $110,000 went to Lawson to help with the remaining cost of doing some finishes around the dormitory building that they've gotten themselves obligated to. And then a half a million dollars went to Marion Military Institute so that they could get the software program it takes for them to be completely in sync with our accounting and information systems. So that's what I've done so far and the rationale for it."
The latest monies and how they are to be allocated is described in the June 28, 2007 revision of the "Report on Planned Uses of Funds Awarded to Date," which you can view here.
In light of Byrne's speech down at Orange Beach where he stressed to presidents the importance of not straying from the system's missions of workforce development, adult education, and the junior college transfer function, I asked Byrne how funding softball fields for Faulkner State and baseball fields for MMI contributed to those core mission functions.
College Visits, Trenholm Tech, New Presidents
The new chancellor said before he came on board that he was not a stay-in-the-office kind of guy and over the next months he will be making more visits to many of the system's schools. In July alone he's scheduled to visit "Calhoun, Hanceville, Shelton, and of course I'll be spending some time at Bishop, beyond that I don't know. Regarding his visits to Calhoun and Wallace-Hanceville, originally sceduled to look at new robotics programs, Byrne says, "It's an incredible opportunity for Alabama to sort of make a name for itself and having the trained workers not only to construct those (robotics) systems but more importantly to maintain them. Maintaining these systems is turning out to be a big issue." In August I know I'll also be going to, at the very least, Drake and Athens and probably somewhere in there Trenholm."
Regarding Trenholm, Byrne says, "I don't have a particular date, but sometime in the next several weeks. At Trenholm, I want to look at some of the facility issues that Mrs. Ella Bell has raised and I want to talk with the interim president about where things are so that I get a good picture in my mind about what needs to get done by the new president."
Trenholm is not accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges (SACS) but is seeking that accreditation. I asked Byrne if he had spoken about Trenholm with Dr. Belle Wheelan, president of the Commission on Colleges, when she made a recent visit to Montgomery. Byrne says, "No, we did not get into that."
But Byrne says he does have concerns about Trenholm. "Well, the particular concern that I have about that school is that it's been floundering for a long time. Even before I came on the Board, it was an institution that was not performing at the level that it could. And, it still isn't, even after all these years. So my concern is that we get the appropriate leadership in there and...we can get to the level where that institution is thriving, because I don't consider it to be a thriving institution right now."
Since Trenholm has a culinary arts program, I asked Byrne if he's seen any indication there may be similar problems to those found with the Best Grill at Bishop State. "I haven't seen anything to indicate that we have a situation similar to that (Best Grill). I had lunch over there (Trenholm) a few weeks back. The food was good. The program seemed to be well run and they were charging people for their meals and everything appeared to me to be operating as it should. Now of course as we get through looking at various programs around the system, we may find that there's an issue there, but I don't see one right now. "
He says since the school is a technical school he's looking for a president "that has the vision and the background to be able to take that school to the next level in providing technical and job training education for the Montgomery area." He says the search will begin in the coming months and he hopes to have somebody before the board by the December meeting. "That's the timeline and as far as I'm concerned we're going to stick to it."
"Now we are going to be doing some advertising to try to get the word out a little bit more broadly than we typically do on all four of these vacancies where we have searches that are about to begin because I want to try to get the best possible pool of applicants that we can find." In general, Byrne says in all his presidents he's looking "for somebody with integrity, someone who's a professional, someone that has a vision and someone that has both the people skills and the work ethic to make that vision happen."
Speaking of integrity, Byrne says his speech on mission, character and integrity to the presidents down at Orange Beach recently has gotten "very positive feedback from a number of presidents. A number of them thanked me and said that it's exactly the sort of thing they wanted to hear and appreciated hearing and nobody came up to me afterwards and said gee, I wish you hadn't talked to us about integrity or character."
Notwithstanding the interesting interchange between a few of the presidents and Alabama Ethics Commissioner Jim Sumner, related to some of Sumner's previous comments about the two-year system, Byrne says he believes the presidents got the message on character and integrity:
Hurricane Evacuation Shelters - Generator Follow up
On June 19, WSFA.com published a story outlining problems related to the lack of generators for the two-year colleges which serve as hurricane evacuation shelters and are a major player in the state's hurricane preparedness and evacuation plan. I asked the chancellor for an update on the situation.
Byrne says the day following our story:
Byrne says he doesn't know for sure when the generators will be in place.
I finished the questioning by asking Byrne a variation of one of my routine closing questions - Any big news that I should know about that I haven't asked you about? The lawyer in Byrne couldn't resist and informed me the question was one "every lawyer asks at the end of a deposition."
Byrne says since it's been such a short period of time he doubts he'll have much new news at Tuesday's Board meeting "unless we've got a hire to announce..." But a week is a long time when it comes to postsecondary world as I've discovered.
I have now received the agenda for Tuesday's meeting, and have been given a gentle reminder that all personnel policies, including the aforementioned flextime policy, have to "lie on the table" for 30 days to allow the Policy Committee time to review and comment. It will be ready for action in August.
Reported by: Helen Hammons