Baker, Ennis address state of college in closed meetings

HAMILTON - Recordings of closed faculty meetings have shed light on a number of issues previously left publicly unaddressed  and unanswered by officials at Bevill State Community College (BSCC) and the Alabama Community College System (ACCS).
According to statements made during these meetings, the allegation by House District 18 Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, D-Red Bay, that BSCC President Dr. Kim Ennis fabricated a study to justify closing three career technical programs at the BSCC Hamilton Campus is a misunderstanding.
In a number of open letters written and sent by Morrow to Ennis following her controversial decision in April to close Automotive Technician, Advanced Design Engineering and Machine Tool Technology on the Hamilton Campus, the representative accused Ennis of falsifying data and claiming that it was sent to her by the Alabama Commission of Higher Education (ACHE).
The representative never received any clarification on the concerns he had.
Ultimately, those technical programs were reinstated on the Hamilton Campus a month later when U.S. House Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, stepped in.
Ennis and other college officials also addressed in those meetings that $2 million in recent budget cuts were a result of unrealized deficit spending over the past five years, reportedly beginning during the tenure of former BSCC President Dr. Anne McNutt, who left the position in March 2014.
ACCS Chancellor Jimmy Baker and Ennis held a systemwide faculty meeting on Thursday, Sept. 6, on the Jasper Campus to discuss the state of affairs at Bevill State.
Ennis subsequently met with BSCC-Hamilton Campus faculty on Sept. 11.
The Journal Record was informed by the ACCS and BSCC that both meetings were not open to the media. However, information on both meetings was made available anonymously to the newspaper afterwards.
The meetings came in the wake of an open records lawsuit filed against Baker and Ennis   by the BSCC Hamilton Campus Legislative Advisory Task Force for Education.
The task force filed the suit on Aug. 29 claiming that numerous financial information requests concerning the programs which the college attempted to close have been ignored by the two college officials.
Officials seeking unity, enrollment growth
The resounding message presented to faculty by both Baker and Ennis at both meetings was that the college needed its employees unified and helping to spread the positivity about the college to help bolster enrollment.
“We’re here for one reason: Our students,” Baker began.
“Unfortunately, as events occurred as they have here, it often times hurts students more than anyone else. That’s not something that I want to be a part of,” Baker said. “I hope that everyone else—in and around our communities—keeps that in mind as well.”
The chancellor said that the burden ands costs of a tradition four-year college education is unrealistic for many students across the state and that he believes that  local community colleges are the best answer.
“It’s important that students get to walk across the stage and get a degree and not owe $50,000,” Baker said.
Baker explained that in 2015, a major event occurred in the community college system: The Legislature made the decision to create a separate board to monitor, control and guide the management of community college system.
“It was probably one of the most profound acts that has occurred at anytime in this state,” Baker said. “It has created a vehicle to bring about change.”
The chancellor said that the board creates administrative oversight for as many as 24 separate community colleges systems across the state and helps to create a unified focus and plan.
He says that along with that oversight came greater scrutiny in community colleges’ finances, which has resulted in a number of improvements being made to move towards financial stability across the community college system.
Regardless, Baker said that enrollment and students in seats is still what makes or breaks a community college’s available resources.
“We can only succeed if you (the employees) become ambassadors for community colleges, whether it be with students, members of the community or with members of the Legislature,” Baker said.
A data-driven system
The chancellor assured his staff that Alabama community colleges are data-driven entities and make decisions accordingly—even the controversial decisions to close the three workforce programs on the Hamilton Campus.
“We can’t afford to teach classes if we can’t afford to have the classes,” Baker said.
“If a class does not have a consistent number of enrollment, the system did not have a rational defense to not close it.”
Baker said that the ACCS began scrutinizing its colleges’ finances, employement roster and program catalog last year after ACCS leadership informed him that there were a number of deficit-spending budgets filed by some of the state’s community colleges, including BSCC.
As an interim president at the time, Baker said that Ennis was charged with the task to proceed  and find a way to solve the deficit problem.
“We’re facing a lot of issues: First, [BSCC] is not in a part of the state which has population growth,” Baker said.
According to 2018 Census information, only one Bevill State service county—Pickens County—experienced population growth.
Census numbers showed:
• Fayette County - 16,538, growth rate is down by 4.02 percent;
• Lamar County - 13,949, growth rate down by 3.76 percent;
• Marion County - 29,922, growth rate down 2.9 percent;
• Pickens County - 20,315, growth rate up 2.86 percent;
• Walker County - 64,561, growth rate is down 3.63 percent; and
• Winston County - 23,887, growth rate is down 2.13 percent.
Baker did note that only about 23 counties in the state experienced small increases in growth rate.
BSCC depleting reserves
In a financial revenue overview, Baker showed that BSCC’s revenue from tuition, fees and auxiliary sources has been dynamic since 2014.
According to a chart, during the:
• 2014-2015 school year, BSCC brought in almost $14.2 million;
• 2015-2016 school year, revenue increased to just short of $14.6 million; and
• 2016-2017 school year, revenue decreased to below $14 million.
According to other data presented, from the 2014-2015 school year to the 2016-2017 school year, BSCC experienced an increase in expenditures of nearly $4 million.
“It’s these ups and downs which cause problems,” Baker said.
The chancellor said that community colleges have reserve accounts which would take care of year-to-year discrepancies. BSCC was dipping into its reserves during the time period, according to Baker.
Ennis later said that she abruptly realized that the college was short on reserves in May 2017, when she went to fund an ongoing project at the Jasper Campus.
According to the Daily Mountain Eagle, Ennis has indicated that over the last several years, BSCC hasn’t had a steady chief financial officer to monitor day-to-day operations.
Additionally, Baker provided credit hour production numbers for BSCC, which showed that in:
• 2014-2015 - more than 85,200 credit hours were recorded;
• 2015-2016 - about 86,200; and
• 2016-2017 - back down to 85,200.
A perfect storm
Ennis was given the floor to speak after the chancellor. She began by saying that since 2014, BSCC has gone through dramatic changes in leadership.
“We had a president (McNutt) for a number of years who led us in efficiency—we didn’t build or invest a lot of money into programs,” Ennis said. “We watched the dollar.”
McNutt resigned in March 2017 under scrutiny for a stark decline in the BSCC system’s enrollment figures.
In November 2015, Dr. Larry Ferguson was appointed to the position and took office in January 2016.
“What a refreshing time that was,” Ennis said. “We went from efficiency to innovation: Broadening, changing and seizing opportunities.”
In this swing of innovation several plans were set in stone, which included creating one-stop admission facilities, create more efficient processes, implement athletics, rapid training center and Alabama Power HVAC training facility.
According to Ennis, Furguson gained traction for one his projects when he gained approval from the ACCS Board of Trustees in December 2016 for a $4.6 million bond for one-stop admission offices for BSCC.
However, after only a year in office, Ferguson resigned from his position at BSCC in February 2017 to serve in his home state as the vice president of the Kentucky Community College Technical Program.
This left the reins of Ferguson’s innovation in Ennis’ lap as she was appointed interim president in March 2017.
Ennis said that she was given a whole list of invested projects that the college was conducting.
The president said that she determined not to let the college’s investment go to waste and set herself to pick up where Ferguson left off.
In May 2017, Ennis said that she planned to accomplish these projects on the college’s reserve funds as she suspected that was Ferguson’s original plan.
At that point, Ennis was told that the college didn’t have the reserve funds available to make that possible.
“That was the first signal for me,” Ennis said. “We have these two major commitments and we have to figure out how to follow through with them.”
So in June 2017, Ennis obtained a $1.9 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to establish a rapid training center. BSCC was responsible to provide a $1.2 million match for the grant funds.
The ACCS board approved the college to take out a $3.1 million bond to finance the grant and center.
The initiative was to relocate Alabama Power’s training center at a Bevill location and the college, which would provide additional revenue.
After beginning the HVAC project, the college discovered that it would need another $1 million for unforeseen expenses.
So Ennis approached the board of trustees again and asked if the college could move $1 million from the original $4.6 million one-stop bond to finish the HVAC project.
The president said that there is a remaining $3.6 million in one-stop bond money still in the college’s accounts.
“We told the board, ‘We’ll come back to you. We need to re-think our plan for our one-stop centers,’” Ennis said.
Ennis said that the college plans to hold meetings in the upcoming months to discuss the possibility of refinancing those bonds.
Deficit spending went unaddressed for five years
In July 2017, Ennis said that she was sitting in a presidents meeting where ACCS Vice Chancellor of Finance Bryan Helms confronted Ennis about the deficit spending taking place at Bevill State.
She said she had known about the deficits for about a year.
The president decided to check on the last time the college hadn’t been in the red and found that the college had been deficit spending for five years.
“Right then, we knew—we have to start taking some hard looks at our financial situation,” Ennis said.
36 positions cut over two years
According to Ennis, 80 percent of the college’s operating budget was being consumed in personnel costs. Ennis said that in 2017, the college made 26 full- and part-time employment cuts. In April, the college announced 10 more full-time non-renewals.
In 2018, the college did not renew 10 other employees.
In total, during 2017 and 2018, the following campus’ lost positions:
• Fayette (6) - Three full-time and three part-time;
• Hamilton (9) - Five full-time and four part-time;
• Jasper (11) - Nine full-time and two part-time; and
• Sumiton (9) - Six full-time and three part-time.
Ennis said that the college has all but cut nearly all of its part-time positions.
Internal employment transfer numbers from campus to campus were not included.
Ennis said that there have been continued efforts to make reductions, including not immediately replacing positions when an employee leaves.
Program viability studies begin
In August 2017, Ennis and the BSCC dean of workforce development met with Helms and forged at plan to make $2 million in cuts to balance to college’s budget.
This included plans to undergo $1 million in cuts during Fiscal Year 2017 and FY 2018.
Ennis stressed that both BSCC and ACCS reviewed enrollment, graduation and job outlook data for all programs before making decisions to close one.
“No external consultant, including the Alabama Commission of Higher Education, participated in reviewing the programs,” Ennis said. “That is very important that this is very clear.”
Ennis said that BSCC has an exceptional internal evaluation process for reviewing program data.
In September 2017, Bevill began program viability consultations with the ACCS and met in a series of meetings to review data, program closure process and timelines.
This included “a lot of meetings and data requests” on workforce, instructional, fiscal, legal and human resource information.
“Our academic council is second to none,” Ennis said.
The president said that college’s ongoing program evaluation looks at a program’s institutional effectiveness, which includes enrollment, graduation rates and retention.
Ennis said that this information provides a scored performance of a program and is presented to the college’s academic deans. She said that the college reviews this information each semester to try and gauge how to best serve the college’s area.
According to a college program evaluation officer who spoke during the meeting, BSCC received an email in November 2017 from  ACHE with an “Academic Program Vitality” report for each college statewide.
The email stated, “This type of data can help campus leaders monitor academic programs and help identify instructional programs that are in need of adjustment.”
According to the evaluation officer, this data showed lagging figures in Bevill State in tool and die technology, automotive courses and drafting and design.
In December  2017, the officer met the ACCS to review the various program evaluation data.
In February 2018 a third meeting with the ACCS instructional team occurred.
In March 2018, the program evaluation data was discussed with the Bevill administration.
For a program to be considered viable, the officer explained that it needs to produce an average of 7.5 degrees or more per year over a three-year period.
On the Hamilton Campus, Automotive Technician had a 5.6 average; Advanced Design Engineering had  an average of 3.3; and Machine Tool Technology showed a 5.6 average.
According to the evaluation officer, the decision to close these programs was made in collaboration with the college’s deans and the ACCS.
ACCS Director of Career and Technical Education Art Rousseau said during the meeting that he rarely sees the diligence and quantify of data requested as he did with BSCC’s recent decisions.
Between March 12 and April 19, six meetings were held with the ACCS fiscal, legal and human resource division. These resulted in a final approval by Baker on April 19.
Finding relevant options in career tech
An unidentified evaluation officer noted during the meeting that Alabama currently has a huge focus on workforce and this creates a responsibility on the college to cater to demands of businesses in the college’s service communities.
Currently, there is a focus on high-wage jobs, according to the officer.
“If there is a particular high-wage, high-demand job in an area, then our college should reflect that,” the officer said. “The enrollment in those programs should be strong. If they are not, we have to ask why and we have to dig deeper.”
The officer said that being able to change and adapt to the contemporary needs is vital to remain relevant and viable.
According to the officer, BSCC has been given reports over the last year showing Marion County’s top 15 career technical careers.
In June 2017, the officer said that they were given analytic data showing that jobs in top demand included:
• Team assemblers;
• Truck drivers;
• Carpenters;
• Nursing assistants;
• Office clerks;
• Cabinetmakers;
• Stock clerks;
• Secretaries;
• Bookkeeping clerks; and
• Maintenance workers.
According to the college official,  BSCC has considered and even moved forward on other career technical programs, such as smart phone app development, funeral science, truck driving, surgical technology and building construction.
Conflicting portrayals
C3 of Northwest Alabama Executive Director David Thornell told the Journal Record in April that C3 was on the Hamilton Campus meeting with college officials the same day Ennis had announced the cuts.
According to the director, his organization was talking with the college about the importance of the college’s  machine tool and drafting programs and the need to hone and adapt them to meet industry needs.
Thornell said that  cuts were never mentioned during that meeting.
The director said that machine tool technology is specifically a program on the Hamilton Campus which his organization promotes to industries they are recruiting.
Further contrasting data used by BSCC and the ACCS, the Journal Record published a story in November 2017 reporting how Machine tool operators was the fastest growing job in Alabama based on a study published by an online career search platform, Zippia.
BSCC Hamilton Campus Machine Tool Technology Instructor Prentice Howell said in that article that he has struggled to get his students to complete the program because companies will hire them out from under him, which has negatively affected his program’s completion and certificate rates.
In a two-month period during the fall of 2017, he said that he had as many as eight of his students secure jobs.
This includes jobs at:
• Hyster-Yale Group in Sulligent—making forklifts;
• PACCAR Engine Company in Columbus, Miss., where Howell says they create whole diesel engines starting with blocks of metal;
• NTN-Bower in Hamilton, which produces roller bearings;
• Deep Blue Concepts in Haleyville, which works largely with classified contracts from the government for various parts; and
• Marigold Works in Jasper, which works closely with the coal industry.

 


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