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OSA scolds R-CCC Trustees

AHOSKIE – What started as an investigation into alleged accreditation and financial missteps here at Roanoke-Chowan Community College turned into a broader probe dealing with high turnover in the president’s position and that some members of the R-CCC’s Board of Trustees were acting beyond their appointed duties.

An investigative report was released Monday by the North Carolina Office of the State Auditor (OSA). That report referenced complaints received by the state agency alleging that R-CCC was violating the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges’ (SACSCOC) Principles of Accreditation: Foundations for Quality and Enhancement. During the course of looking into the initial allegation, the investigation was expanded to include the college’s failure to perform timely billings of student sponsorship accounts receivable.

In its investigation, OSA personnel performed reviews of both the SACSCOC Principles of Accreditation and the meeting minutes of the R-CCC Trustees, conducted interviews with current and former employees of the college, and examined available documents and records of the college.

As to the accreditation allegation, that was based on a finding that the brother (Timothy Lassiter Sr.) of the chairman of the RCCC Board of Trustees (Andre Lassiter at the time of the OSA audit) was employed by the college as its Plant Operations Foreman as well as the acting Director of Facilities and Maintenance.

The OSA report revealed that this relationship may be a violation of the SACSCOC Principles of Accreditation: Foundations for Quality and Enhancement, of which Section 2.2 states, “Both the presiding officer of the board and a majority of other voting members of the board are free of any contractual, employment, or personal or familial financial interest in the institution.”

The College’s noncompliance could result in sanctions by SACSCOC. According to SACSCOC, “Institutions that do not demonstrate that they meet accreditation standards may be asked for monitoring reports, placed on the public sanctions of ‘Warning’ or ‘Probation,’ or dropped from status as a candidate or an accredited institution.”

The OSA recommended the R-CCC Trustees should review the SACSCOC Principles of Accreditation and take necessary steps to ensure compliance with the principles.

In his response to the OSA, R-CCC President Dr. Stanley Elliott stressed that none of the Trustees have any contractual, employment or personal interest in the institution. He added that upon the occasions where the Trustees conducted deliberations about the Chairman’s brother, he recused himself from those discussions.

“The Chairman’s brother no longer serves as the Interim Director of Facilities and Maintenance, and is currently employed as the Plant Operations Foreman,” Dr. Elliott wrote in a March 28 letter to the OSA.

The OSA audit also showed the college failed to conduct timely billings of sponsorship accounts receivables. Sponsorship revenue collected from each community college is pooled and redistributed to each community college based on a predetermined allocation rate.

“(R-CCC’s) failure to invoice and collect those outstanding balances from the sponsors reduced the amount of pooled sponsorship revenue available to all North Carolina community colleges,” the OSA audit stated.

It further stated that the R-CCC Business Office failed to issue a portion of invoices to sponsors from fall 2016 through fall 2017. A report from the college containing sponsorship accounts receivable balances reflected approximately $62,000 of unbilled sponsorship receivables.

“A review of this report provided evidence that the report was both incomplete and inaccurate. A sponsorship amount of $524 was omitted from the report. As a result, there is the potential that other amounts may also be omitted from the report,” stated the OSA audit.

The R-CCC Controller said the failure to invoice and collect payments from sponsors was caused by vacant positions resulting from a high rate of turnover within the Business Office. It was noted that among the Business Office personnel, nearly all have held their positions for less than a year.

The OSA recommended that the college should review the sponsorship accounts receivable report to ensure the report is complete and accurate prior to conducting billings, and to ensure student sponsorship billings are made current and processed timely in the future.

In his letter of response, Dr. Elliott said corrective actions are in place. They include the Controller reviewing sponsorship receivables at the 10 percent point of the semester and again at the end of the semester to ensure all billing is processed in a timely manner. Additionally, the Business Office will maintain a spreadsheet as a means of reporting the progress of all sponsorship billings.

The OSA audit probed deeper. It noted that R-CCC has experienced a high rate of turnover in the president’s position between September 2012 and November 2017. During that period the college contracted with four separate presidents (Dr. Ralph Soney, Dr. Michael Elam, Dr. Jimmy Tate, and Dr. Elliott).

The audit said former presidents along with current and former employees attributed that high turnover rate to the excessive involvement in day-to-day operations of the college by its Board of Trustees.

“The results of our investigation could neither prove nor disprove that the Board’s involvement in the college’s daily operations was excessive,” the OSA audit revealed. “To determine whether or not the Board is taking on the roles and responsibilities of the president, the State Board of Community Colleges and the System Office should consider on-site monitoring of the (R-CCC) board’s role in the college’s daily operations.”

While the OSA said its investigation could not substantiate the allegation that the R-CCC Trustees involvement in the college’s daily operations was excessive and over-reaching, “it should be reiterated that the allegation was not proven to be untrue.”

Furthermore, the OSA scolded the Trustees for what they deemed as a failure of the board to realize the seriousness of the matters at hand.

“On November 14, 2017, OSA investigators conducted an exit conference with the Board Chair and President of the college. At the President’s request, OSA investigators conducted an additional exit conference with the Board on November 28, 2017. During this exit conference, select board members failed to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation and at times were uncooperative, belligerent, and argumentative,” as stated in the report.

Dr. Elliott, in his letter of response, questioned why the OSA released a written report of its findings. He said that during the Nov. 14 meeting the OSA investigations stated, “there were no findings that warranted a written report.”

He added the same statement was made by the OSA investigators at the Nov. 28 meeting.

“This (report) proves that the OSA’s investigation continued well after they stated the audit was over,” Dr. Elliott wrote in his response. “This brings to question the OSA’s motives for continuing an audit that had supposedly concluded, and documenting the report that was initially deemed unworthy of a written report.”

In its response to Elliott, the OSA said at the time of the exit conference on Nov. 28, it planned to issue a letter to the State Board of Community Colleges outlining the findings of the audit.

“However, due to the college’s Board of Trustees dismissive demeanor concerning the findings presented during the exit conference, OSA decided to issue a report to inform the Governor, the General Assembly, and the State Board of Community Colleges of the findings and the board’s unprofessional and dismissive behavior,” the OSA stated.

Additionally, the OSA informed SACSCOC of the possible violation on Dec. 15, 2017.

“As SACSCOC is the oversight body for accreditation, SACSCOC will determine if the employment of the Board Chair’s brother violates SACSCOC Principles of Accreditation: Foundations for Quality and Enhancement 2.2,” as quoted in the OSA’s response.

In defense of R-CCC, Dr. Elliott told the OSA in his letter that the college had submitted its SACSCOC Fifth Year Interim Report in September of last year and that the Commission had voted to reaffirm the college at its annual conference in December, 2017. He said part of that SACSCOC process is submitting R-CCC’s most two recent state audits.

“Upon review of the audits, (R-CCC) was deemed compliant and was not required to submit additional information. In respect to the possible violation of Principles of Accreditation, Section 2.2, SACSCOC would not have granted reaffirmation if there were a violation,” Elliott wrote in his response.

He also defended the R-CCC Trustees, saying, “The governing board has a clear and appropriate distinction between its role as the policy making function of the board and the responsibility of the administration and faculty to administer and implement policy.”

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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