Postsecondary Update: Presidents, Policies, Lobbyists, Money and More

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.

On President Kennedy - "That title carries with it no pay and no powers.  It is strictly honorary and it's in recognition of 20 some-odd years of service to the school as president.  We normally give that to presidents.  I'll grant you this is an unusual circumstance in that we have a president that has a tremendous number of problems in the institution as she retires, but we normally give this out and we didn't see any reason, based upon what we know right now to deny that to Dr. Kennedy."
Byrne did acknowledge being aware, based on media reports, that Mobile District Attorney John Tyson is looking into the issue of community service grant money Dr. Kennedy directed to the school for purposes of the culinary arts program and in particular the restaurant operating on Martin Luther King Blvd.  Byrne says the review team found the "money went into the culinary program...just in our judgment it was a complete waste of money, because that program continues to lose funding in significant amounts every year and it doesn't seem to be related to actual services that would be related to instruction of students."

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.

"Well, I'm sure the average worker doesn't believe it's appropriate because they don't get to do that.  And you know it's all a function of the rather generous retirement system we have in Alabama, which the average worker doesn't have an opportunity to participate in.  But once again, the question is - Do you try to go in and force an issue where somebody's going to be gone in a couple of months?  Let him go in a couple of months.  If he gets an extra couple hundred dollars a month, on top of what's already a pretty generous retirement plan, I mean ultimately in the long run I just don't see that being a big enough issue to make you want to throw down the gauntlet."

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:

"It's hard to say that a particular decision about a particular president is a precedent; but, in general, I'm going to require my presidents to adhere to a pretty high standard and if they don't adhere to it I'm going to make appropriate recommendations to the Board and I'm not going to play around about it.  I'm going to do it in a timely fashion...I just have a strong feeling that if you've got a problem like that you deal with it, and deal with it in a timely manner."

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?

"Well I can't say that was in the front of my mind, because it wasn't.  But you always sit back and think - alright, if someone decides they want to fight something what's it going to cost to get to success.  Now, I'm of the mind that if you've got to take personnel actions you take them regardless.  But if you can avoid the potential for litigation costs by letting somebody retire in a short timeframe, then that's not a bad thing - that's a good thing."

Flextime Policy and Lobbyists 

A DRAFT  flexible work schedule policy was presented to the Board for consideration last week which reads as follows:

"All Alabama College System employees engaged in outside employment or activities during their normal work hours must request personal, annual, or unpaid leave in accordance with State Board policy.  Only unpaid leave is available for outside employment or activities which result in compensation and/or the reimbursement of expenses.  Under no circumstances should additional duties or responsibilities be imposed on other employees as a result of an approved request pursuant to this policy."

I asked the chancellor if the draft policy would change much and to explain the thinking behind the policy:

"What we're going to do is we're going to look at all three of the policies that are presently before the policy committee and the Board - the double-dipping policy, the leave policy, and the flex policy and make sure we harmonize them.  But the general concept of the flextime policy I don't think will change."

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:

"In keeping with my directives regarding compliance with State Board policies, please be advised that Alabama College System Institutions are no longer authorized to pay management fees to employ the Executive Director of the Alabama College System President's Association.  It is my understanding that the Executive Director serves as a liaison for governmental relations.  Dr. Linda Young and her committee are scheduled to meet with me next week to discuss a new approach to governmental relations which will comply with State Board policies." (Bold in original memo)

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?

"Right now we're thinking about what we're going to do since we're not going to have the prior way of lobbying.  And there are only really two options: One is to hire somebody on staff, a full-time governmental  relations person, which is the direction I'm leaning.  And, the other direction would be to simply have a contract with a contract lobbyist, and you know there are a great many of them in Montgomery,  and to have one of them on just a retainer basis, which is not the way that I'm leaning."

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.

"I know that there are some people that would like to see that happen.  And I've not said that it's not or that it is.  I've just been listening to people who've said they would like to see that happen.  If he were part-time it would be only for a short period of months.  It would not be on any sort of permanent basis."

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:

"Finding:  The College provides Theatre Tuscaloosa...substantial College-owned or College funded resources, including theater facilities, theater management and staffing provided by State employees, and other in-kind operational support to promote and state Theater Tuscaloosa's productions, without the College's fully tracking the costs involved, and without reimbursement to the College for the use of College assets and cost of College provided operating resources.

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.

"Well we're having to come up with some policies that deal with how you deal with foundations and other third party entities outside the college and those policies are going to resolve all that.  I would say in general I think there are some practices in the system that are not as tight as they need to be.  Rather than address them ad hoc, we're coming up with some policies."

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:

"Well, the foundation issue is a major issue and one that has to be addressed and is being addressed.  We have a committee.  There's a policy review team that's being headed up by Marilyn Beck, the president of Calhoun, and she's actually got a draft policy that's coming to me when I get back and it's a policy that we'll put before the board in September, and ask the board to adopt in September, that will substantially tighten up, and make more  specific, the requirements you need to meet if you're going to have a foundation and how the college interacts with the foundation."

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.

"We hadn't been  getting any indication that that's a problem throughout the system, but it certainly was a problem in those cases and so it makes you then question do we have a problem throughout the system.  So one of the things that we're having to do with the business officers is address with them the need to make sure that we comply with existing policy on record retention."

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.

"You have to understand that even cosmetology is a part of our economy.  So, if people are able to get jobs and able to make a living doing that, that's their choice.  The cosmetology programs at most, if not all the schools around the state if not a money maker, they at least break even.  So we're not losing anything by offering those programs and there's obviously the need for them."

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.

"In those cases they had already for some reason committed to that and needed the money to finish it out.  So that's stuff that they had done before I came on board and I don't want them to have expenses like that hanging out over them when I need for them to be focused on other things."

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:

"A number of them have talked to me since then about ways they are approaching the issue and about ways they are trying to bring that same message to their own staffs, so I think they took it to heart and are taking it seriously."

Hurricane Evacuation Shelters - Generator Follow up

On June 19, 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:

"I had a phone call from Bruce Baughman who's the state EMA director assuring me that they would have temporary generators in place before a hurricane hits at each of our Tier 1 shelters and that he was looking for the funding to provide permanent generators long term for those same shelters."

Byrne says he doesn't know for sure when the generators will be in place.

"It depends upon how quickly they can get started.  They can still get here.  If you started right now you could have generators in place in 30 days.  Now that would put you right into the worse part of hurricane season, so I don't know if they've got the funding in place to do that yet.  But it could be done."

Next Week

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."

"Gosh, I can't think of anything.  I mean this has been kind of a dead week.  I can't think of anything of any importance that's going on.  I mean things will pick back up next week but I can't think of anything this week."

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

Italics Indicates Correction from $2 million to $10 million