We generally like and appreciate the mission of Alamance Community College, and we’re very fond of its current president, Dr. Algie Gatewood, who we believe has brought real leadership to the school.
But even among friends, we have to question some of the priorities and approaches being contemplated – or in one case, dictated – by Gatewood and other ACC officials, primarily its board of trustees.
Lots of money, but never enough
Let’s summarize the financial situation at ACC: the community college has had a windfall (our term) of $18.6 million in supposed “Covid-19 relief” from federal and state coffers.
As with most local governments, there is never a problem spending windfalls of “free money,” no matter how large the pot may be. And ACC has already spent, or designated, about $13 million of its allotment.
Still, ACC has about $5 million in unspent, and undesignated, money – still sitting, at least figuratively, in its bank account.
Meanwhile, ACC plans to “poor mouth” to the county’s commissioners next week that they simply don’t have enough left from another pot of money – $39.6 million that the county’s voters awarded them in a 2018 bond referendum – to finish the plans they had on how to spend it on construction projects around the campus.
Construction costs have escalated, to be sure, and that part is not ACC’s fault. However, the fact that the school is still making plans on the specifics of how to spend that bond money more than three years (!) after the voters approved it seems puzzling, indeed.
Ah, yes. We’re quite sure the answer to this and so many other oddities of late is Covid and its impact.
Nonetheless, there is a remarkable similarity between the amount of money ACC still has sitting in its coffers from its Covid windfall and the amount it wants the commissioners to authorize – above and beyond the $39.6 million that voters authorized.
We’d have no strong objection if the commissioners want to give some more money to help ACC finance some of its remaining projects. But it seems to us that ACC needs to find ways to pay for some, if not most, of the shortfall on its own – either by dipping into other pots of money or curtailing the size, scope, or magnificence of its projects.
Now, we know, we know. We can imagine the first line of objection is that Covid money has limitations. It probably cannot all be used to make up the difference in construction cost overruns. But our wager is that some of it could, in fact, be used for some of ACC’s building projects – or for other expenses that could be freed up to be diverted to construction funding.
It’s largely a matter of how creative the community college and its president can be. When they want to get something done, they can make heroic efforts.
For instance, the general parameters on some Covid-19 pots of money has been that it cannot be used for pay raises. But, lo and behold, the community college asked for a special dispensation on that front, and it was granted.
So ACC officials have decided to bestow $250,000 to pay bonuses to all its employees (except top-ranking officials).
Who needs a board of trustees?
We join most average taxpayers in trying to understand this picture: the community college is sitting on so much money that it has decided to award a quarter-million dollars in bonuses to all employees, but meanwhile is putting out its hand to the county expecting taxpayers to fund an extra $5 million for construction costs.
As Uncle Chub used to say: that doesn’t even make good nonsense.
By the way, we also find it high-handed, indeed, that, somehow, the college has decided that it has the authority to award these raises without seeking approval of the board of trustees. Instead, our friend Dr. Gatewood has decided that he, alone, can make the decision, and, by golly, he’s going to pay out the bonuses on his own authority in the next two weeks.
If the money was coming from his own pocket, that would be understandable, but needless to say, it’s not.
We think this is a particularly unnecessarily authoritarian approach inasmuch as we cannot think of the last time the docile ACC trustees bucked anything the ACC administration recommended.
One more thing: if we hear one more bureaucrat or government agency prattle on about the heroic efforts of its public sector employees during the pandemic, we think we’ll. . . well we haven’t decided.
We don’t suspect many people in government to notice, but while most public sector employees were “working remotely” – and we use that term very skeptically – most private-sector employees have had to work at their places of employment throughout the pandemic.
And if they worked remotely, even at all, rarely did they have the special privileges and accommodations made for government workers.
More hard-to-explain math: Money for staff bonuses, but students expected to pay more; what?
While the community college is sitting on the previously mentioned pot of Covid money, its administration is asking the trustees to approve a hike in the fees charged to its students.
Now, from the statistics presented, we don’t dispute that ACC is a bargain for its students. Objectively, standing on its own, we’re sure some increase might be reasonable.
Still, it seems puzzling, indeed, in the very same week when the college has decided to give its staff a whopping bonus (full-time employees to get $1,500, part-timers, $750), they’re contemplating to impose an almost identically similar amount of increases ($250,000) in student fees.
What’s wrong with this picture?
We especially note that, in the fine print, at least some of the Covid money is designated for “financial aid,” which it would seem to us, as simple laymen, could include the possibility of funding some of the expenses that purportedly necessitate the higher student fees.
We guess these ACC illustrations just remind us that, as always with government, when they want to do something, there’s always a justification. And when officials don’t want to do something, there’s an equally creative justification.
But it seems to us, there’s a certain degree of consistency that should be present in its policies and practices, and these latest examples from the community college certainly call that into question.