Last week’s release of a devastating audit of Erie Community College by the Office of the State Comptroller highlighted poor management at the school in the areas of personnel, purchasing and governance. While the official ECC response as contained in the audit document was loaded with denials and finger-pointing, the public face that college President Jack Quinn tried to put on the issues was something like this – thanks for the constructive criticism. We are getting right on it to set it all straight. We’ll document better and let people know what we are doing.
Fine, President Quinn, but why all the new and expensive administrative positions? What about the pay raises that appear to be personal rather than professional decisions? What about all those little-documented and no-bid contracts? Why are the college Foundation and the Auxiliary Services Corporation being used for executive perks? When the college is in serious financial distress, where is the fiscal restraint?
Here are some things that are going on that relate to the audit:
- The ECC Board met yesterday. Their response to the need for better record-keeping was to hire a court reporter to make a transcript of the meeting. A costly bit of over-kill. Most professional organizations’ minutes consist of the presentation of the agenda; attendance; board resolutions that take action; and a recording of the votes of board members. It more important to document what was voted on and how members voted rather than the words said during the meeting.
- As a side note, I went looking a couple days ago on the College website for minutes of Board meetings. I could not find a reference for that so I emailed an information office at the college to ask where I could locate the minutes and who the school’s Freedom of Information Officer is. I haven’t heard back.
- The ECC Board will prepare a “corrective action plan” for the State Comptroller within 90 days from the time of the audit release, explaining how they will resolve the issues raised. Board member Dennis Murphy will head the effort.
- The ad-hoc committee intends to hire an outside counsel and a “temporary” administrator to assist in their efforts. This can be read as the Board saying they do not trust existing legal or administrative staff to be part of the solution. Not good in the sense that extra money will be spent, but unfortunately probably necessary in order to take an objective look at the clean-up work that needs to be done. The County Executive may need to sign off on hiring the outside counsel.
- Hiring a “temporary” administrator is interesting because, according to the audit, there are already at least 29 “Senior Executive Staff” (SES) members, with total salaries of $2.2 million. While the school budget identifies each clerk and maintenance position, there is no documentation about the titles or individual salaries of the SES folks.
- Kristen Klein Wheaton, the college’s in-house legal counsel, resigned yesterday. The audit criticized the College Board’s liaison for refusing to give auditors contact information for Board members. The liaison was Ms. Klein Wheaton. Are there terminations coming?
- The County Legislature’s Community Enrichment Committee met yesterday to apparently review the audit. Nothing of note transpired at the brief meeting.
President Quinn is correct that some value can come to the school from the audit. But this is only true if the multiple players involved recognize that substantial operational changes are necessary. The college’s financial problems will not go away simply by responding to the audit recommendations, but doing so will make things somewhat easier for the county government, which is the only serious option for substantial increases in funding, to assist. The players include:
- County Executive Mark Poloncarz. He is so far holding his cards close to the vest. Reportedly he has met with Quinn. Poloncarz has also appointed deputy budget director Tim Callan to the Board. This is an unusual move, but justifiable given the seriousness of ECC’s problems. Callan can be expected to be an aggressive member of the Board but he will need allies.
- Board Chairman Steve Boyd’s term is up in June and he may not want to continue as a member. Boyd’s seat is a gubernatorial appointment, so we’ll see if Governor Cuomo chooses to play a role in the direction that the Board will take.
- The County Legislature could play an important role in reforming the school. The Legislature has not demonstrated much initiative in pursuing substantial county government centered issues. There is more to the role of the Legislature than memorializations and approving congratulatory resolutions.
- County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw has been silent on this issue. He has his own problems at the moment, but the office has the authority to involve itself in follow-up to the State audit.
- The State University of New York has an oversight role with community colleges. Do the management problems at ECC interest them?
- Finally, the college administration needs to step up on this. It does not seem too much to ask for the president of the school, whose salary and perks exceed $200,000, to devote his full time attention to the management of the school. Jack Quinn is a member of the Board of Directors of Kaiser Aluminum, which is headquartered in California. Kaiser pays Quinn in excess of $100,000 per year in retainer fees, stock options and meeting attendance fees. Serving on that board requires Quinn’s regular attendance at meetings in California. He is a member of the Corporation’s Compensation Committee and the Nominating and Corporate Governance Committee. Quinn also serves as a Management Trustee of the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust and has served on the Hurricane Sandy Task Force of the State of New York and the New York State Tax Relief Commission – none of which seem to have anything in particular to do with the management of Erie Community College.
One more thing
The audit reported that the college’s Associate Vice President of Information Technology received up to $500 per week in extra stipend payments for three and a half years for a project that may have taken only a few weeks. The stipends totaled $74,750. The IT administrator retired recently and was provided an early retirement incentive that represented a substantial portion of his previous annual salary at the school. What I have heard is that upon his retirement he has been hired back. Terms and conditions are unknown at this time. Perhaps if the College Board did better with their record keeping we would know more.