First Posted: 1/15/2009
John Charles Robbins
LUMBERTON — The president of RCC is upset with the state Community College System over the timing of its release of negative findings from an audit about the college, coming in the days before dozens of community college presidents were to huddle on the local campus.
Charles Chrestman, the president of Robeson Community College, also suggests “politics” might have been the force behind the unscheduled audit.
“One can easily see the timing of the press release coincided to some degree with RCC’s hosting the 2008 N.C. Association of Community College President’s Winter Meeting,” Chrestman said. “However, I do not believe this was intentional but rather staff working hard and fast to get a job task completed.”
The press release read as follows: “Today (Friday, Jan. 18), the State Board of Community Colleges approved an agreement with Robeson Community College regarding the college’s aviation curriculum which has been operated in association with the University of North Dakota and the University of North Dakota Aerospace Foundation (UNDAF). The agreement is a compromise settlement of issues raised by a System audit of the program. The agreement will result in the repayment of funds to the State and the release of funds the System Office withheld during the System audit.”
The audit determined that the aviation program, which was established in 2005, did not receive a proper sign-off by the state system’s president, Martin Lancaster, enrollment in the program was low, and the program was losing money. The aviation program at RCC is a joint effort with the University of North Dakota. It prepares pilots, air traffic controllers and airport administrators. Two years of the program are at the RCC campus, and two are at the North Dakota campus.
Chrestman said, once a settlement had been reached, “there was a rush by the NCCCS office to prepare and distribute a press release regarding the matter.” Although Chrestman calls the rush of the press release “curious,” he stops short of concluding it was intended to shame RCC when the college presidents were in Lumberton. About 60 community college presidents began arriving Wednesday for the conference, which was Thursday and Friday.
The Robesonian tried several times last week to reach Lancaster for comment, but never succeeded.
The settlement calls for the college to repay the state operational funding and a penalty amounting to $65,000. In exchange, the state system will release $270,000 in bonus money the college earned last year by achieving a superior status. Those funds were withheld while the audit was performed.
RCC officials disagree with the audit’s findings, but say challenging them could have been more expensive to the college.
According to Chrestman, creation of the press release became a sticking point in the settlement, with the state office wanting to broadcast the audit’s findings and the resolution.
“As the negotiations were taking place to settle the special audit, one point the NCCCS Office would not negotiate on was their desire to prepare a press release regarding the negotiated settlement,” Chrestman said. “This was perplexing and one could easily conclude that there was no useful purpose to be served in preparing a press release unless the NCCCS Office needed to document to the (unnamed person) who had requested the special audit that they had taken action on the matter.”
George Regan, chairman of the RCC board of trustees, said that the college did not need Lancaster’s signature for the aviation program.
“There’s something else going on behind the scenes,” he said. “I don’t feel we were treated fairly by the system office from the time it started to the end.”
Chrestman wondered why previous audits had not uncovered problems.
“Given the program had been audited for two years with no findings …, when the special audit took an extended period of time, we became suspicious that efforts were being made to find something wrong with the RCC/UND partnership …,” he said. “Given that the NCCCS Office told me as president that the special audit was being conducted because someone (unnamed) had requested it, it would certainly be grounds for one to surmise that politics might be involved.”
Chrestman and Regan said RCC’s attorney and an independent attorney concluded there was no evidence that RCC had done anything wrong. Chrestman said the state office continues to reject his request that the person who asked for the special audit be identified.
The dispute follows a similar skirmish between RCC and the state office last summer, when the local college’s pursuit of a a license practical nurses program came up empty. Lancaster was a vocal opponent of the LPN program on the RCC campus, saying it wasn’t economical because a similar program was at Bladen Community College. RCC eventually withdrew the request.
Chrestman was reluctant to connect those dots.
“I cannot say that this audit is linked in any way to the college’s earlier application … for a new … nursing program, but we do know the committee voting to approve or disapprove that application was told by the committee chair that the consideration of RCC’s practical nursing application had become political, and they needed to settle the matter,” Chrestman said.