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Road to ruin or repair?
by Bill Clough
Jul 09, 2013 | 2370 views | 0 0 comments | 81 81 recommendations | email to a friend | print
BEEVILLE – Of 97 items for reaccreditation contained in a preliminary report by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), Coastal Bend College was non-complaint in more than a third.

The report was issued in May as part of the college’s process of accreditation, which occurs every decade.

SACS, with headquarters in Decatur, Ga., sets and enforces the accreditation standards for 804 educational institutions from Texas to Virginia.

CBC “obviously has some challenges,” says SACS President Dr. Belle Wheelen.

Some of the deficiencies are minor, such as a lack of a signature, to answers with insufficient documentation. But some are more serious, such as SACS questioning CBC’s financial stability.

CBC President Dr. Beatriz Espinoza admits that she wishes the results would have been better, but is confident that all the points of disagreement will be rectified to SACS’ approval.

Two-year process

The two-year procedure begins with CBC providing SACS with the answers to a profusion of questions concerning curriculum, assessment, employee qualifications and finances.

From those answers, SACS provides a preliminary report on its findings. CBC then must reply to the deficiencies in a focused report. If SACS still isn’t satisfied with the scope of the answers, it can file a monitor report, which gives the college a year to correct any issues. That is followed by a warning, then the college being placed on probation and, finally, loss of membership — which results in forfeiture of all federal funding. However, Wheelan says, “such events are rare.”

The more serious of the SACS concerns is the institution’s financial health. CBC board minutes “do not reflect a plan to address the (financial) concerns,” writes the chair of the reaffirmation committee, Dr. Renea Akin of West Kentucky Community and Technical College.

However, the report was published prior to the CBC board’s passing its 2013-2014 budget that includes a $1.5-million payment to reinforce a reserve fund depleted during the presidency of Dr. Thomas Baynum.

The annual payment — one of three — along with staffing layoffs and stringent budgetary belt-tightening — are aimed at restoring the college’s financial viability. Espinoza is confident the combination will satisfy SACS.

Wheelan says a report with 34 percent non-compliance is slightly higher than the norm.

“Many of the deficiencies are simply that we did not supply enough information for SACS to make a decision,” Espinoza says.

The accreditation process began almost simultaneously with Espinoza’s taking over the presidency.

The 42-page report would have been a single item on the CBC board agenda. But now the CBC Faculty Senate, highly critical of Espinoza’s governance and her bare-bones budgetary cutbacks, is using it as political leverage.

“I am shocked that Dr. Espinoza, faced with 33 items of non-compliance that the college must address, seems to be very keen this summer in getting into shouting matches with the faculty instead of dealing with them,” says Dr. Emmanuel Alvarado, the outgoing president of the faculty senate.

SILENCED SENATE?

For the last three board sessions, charging that Espinoza has effectively silenced them, senate speakers have used the public comments portion of the board meetings to criticize Espinoza’s cost-cutting and her dramatic restructuring of the administration.

Board members are not allowed to converse with any speaker during the public comments portion of the board meeting.

But in a conversation early this week. Board Chairman Paul Jaure defended Espinoza.

“(She) inherited an institution that was on the road to financial ruin,” Jaure says. “Primarily, the college’s expenses were well over the revenue.”

Trustee Laura Fischer is more descriptive: “She inherited a monster.”

Alvarado is skeptical.

“It is a very disingenuous idea to think that the members on the current board had no clue that the college was over-stretched,” he says. “They certainly now have converted into ‘we are the stewards of the people’s money.’ That sort of narrative wasn’t there for the past three years, and they could have fixed it. I think that’s something the citizens of Bee County should be aware of.”

“We’re not a day-to-day, hands-on board,” counters Fischer. “We are a policy board, not an activity board. This is something the public may not understand.”

Under the Baynum administration, the board was given 72 hours to peruse his budget, compared with this year’s budget, passed only after 30 to 45 days of examination.

In the last few years, the college has witnessed a steady drop in enrollment — with resultant loss of revenue — mostly attributed to the insatiable demand for oil field workers with accompanying high salaries.

MODERN FOCUS

In 2012, the board directed Espinoza to address the problem. “She quickly found that we had a college that was faculty-and-staff-centered and not student-centered,” Jaure says.

Driving that shift in emphasis are board decisions to require CBC instructors to teach 40 hours a week and, starting in 2014, requiring students to attend class Monday through Friday.

Student success has become a universal mantra. The phrase “Keeping Student Success in Sight” appeared on 85 percent of the agenda items for the last CBC board meeting.

“The board asked Dr. Espinoza to have a procedure that would be as fair and equitable as possible,” Jaure says about the decision not to renew the contracts of a dozen instructors.

“The faculty division chairs did not agree with the decisions. Consequently, they withdrew themselves from the decision-making process when their input was needed,” Jaure says. “We need the cooperation of everybody, to have everyone on the team.”

POLARIZATION

The enmity between the administration and the faculty senate has reached such an impasse that Alvarado predicts that six — perhaps more — instructors are planning to resign in protest.

Espinoza doubts that figure; so does Jaure.

The salient point, says Espinoza, is that the senate members do not represent the mind-set of the entire faculty.

“We’re trying not to have animosity with them; we’re trying to work with them,” Fischer says.

The first step, Jaure says, is that at the next board meeting he is going to ask the senate if he could attend its next meeting.

“I’d like to invite them to come to present to the board how they operate. I think the board would like to know who makes up the senate. Do they have minutes of their meetings? How did they get to this point of appearing before the board? Do they have bylaws and a quorum, and do they vote? Or is it just two people who meet and do whatever they want?”

BASELESS PERCEPTION?

Of the senate’s claim of being silent, Espinoza says it is more a matter of perception. “Where they got that perception, I do not know,” she says, citing a plethora of monthly meetings, retreats, “breakout” sessions, in-service days and institutional effectiveness workshops — to all of which, she says, faculty senate members were invited.

“But I’m interested in fixing it. Because as a college, we all need to be working together. The outcome is what we are all working toward – and to get there efficiently.”

As the Eagle Ford Shale project forever changed the economy of the area serviced by the college, CBC has had to adapt.

“Our focus still seems to be more on grades,” Espinoza says, “but the push all the way up to Congress is more emphasis on learning. Employers are concerned that more and more students are graduating but don’t have the skill sets. I can’t comfortably say that the scope of that is understood here.”

Also what is needed, she says, is a sense of teamwork.

“Obviously, as the job market changes, the needs of the students change,” says Mark Secord, CBC vice president of instruction. “You would expect the school to move in that direction. We haven’t always done that. We kind of stagnated over time.”

BUILT-IN ARMY

“What I have found,” Espinoza says, reflecting on her tenure, “is that we have a significant core of people who love what they do, who care about our students, who care deeply about this community, who believe in this college as family and home and want to make it work. With that much of a built-in army, how can you go wrong? I’m disappointed that I could not keep everyone happy, but my job is to keep this college going, to keep its doors open.”

Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.
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