Battle of the Boards

State and local community college panels in North Carolina tangle over a range of oversight issues.
December 20, 2006

In an unorthodox move, North Carolina's State Board of Community Colleges has passed a resolution admonishing the Board of Trustees of Blue Ridge Community College for failing to oversee how the college's president has operated its baseball program.

Specifically, the state board suggested that Blue Ridge trustees had not acted aggressively enough after a special review by the state auditor found myriad violations, including the baseball coach's misuse of work-study payments, improper use of state funds and a possible conflict of interest in a financial deal that involved the college and a company owned by the board chairman.

The state board's resolution does not call for firing either the community college's president or the baseball coach, who is implicated in numerous charges by the auditor. But in its own response to the state board's action, the Blue Ridge trustees say they "fully recognize that the state board desired that the college president receive adverse employment action from the trustees; and when such action was not taken the state board chose to 'censure and condemn' the trustees."

The January audit focused on a series of infractions, mostly involving financial transactions. It found that David W. Sink, Blue Ridge's president, instructed the college's director of administrative services to issue a $4,501.29 check to cover the amount a private real estate company said it was owed in back rent and utilities from baseball players. 

The auditor found that the college isn't liable for back rent and should not have paid it, and that payment to a private entity created a "potential conflict of interest," because the owner of the players' housing is the chairman of the college's Board of Trustees. The lawyer representing the trustees said Sink acknowledged that the payment was "inappropriate," and that the coach immediately repaid funds that covered the rental payments.

Sink said there was no conflict of interest in the rental agreement -- a conclusion that he said is backed by a state ethics board that looked into the incident. But David Sullivan, general counsel for the North Carolina Community College System, disagrees. "There is certainly the appearance of a conflict of interest here: Public money was used to pay a private debt owed to the trustee chairman's company," he said.

The coach was found to have selected players to participate in the college's work-study program, supervised the duties, authorized their timesheets, picked up the students' checks from the cashier's office and delivered the checks to the landlord for payment of rent. The coach has acknowledged endorsing the checks and signing timesheets for players, and Sink said the college agrees with the findings that the coach was "sloppy" with the records. For this and other actions, he received a one-year probation. (He remains on staff.)

Both Sink and the trustees say they are satisfied with the sanctions, and that new measures have been put in place to ensure that there is more accurate work-study record keeping. Chris Campbell, special counsel to the Blue Ridge trustees, said the board had voluntarily repaid more than $7,000 in federal funds that college officials could not guarantee were disbursed appropriately. The audit had concluded that more than $7,000 was diverted to the coach's bank account in the name of a private business -- a summer baseball camp he ran on college fields.  

"Blue Ridge trustees said from the beginning that if they find anywhere that money was misspent, they would pay it back," Campbell said. "They have made good on that."

The state board's resolution said the trustees must, among other things:

  • Make full and complete restitution of those state funds that have been misdirected to support the operation of its intercollegiate athletics programs since January 1, 2002.
  • Stop using state funds for any purpose that either directly or indirectly supports the operation of intercollegiate athletics programs. 

The audit said -- and the state board agrees -- that Sink was aware of the potential misuse of funds by the coach for years without acting and thus failed to provide adequate oversight of the program. 

Sullivan said the information is mostly substantiated in Blue Ridge’s own investigation into the audit. “You can argue with some of the details, but you can’t argue with the overarching mismanagement that appears to have occurred.”

Sink called that accusation "totally unfair," saying that he had numerous meetings with the coach that were undocumented, and thus not recognized by the state board and its investigator.

"We have proven that every time something was brought to my attention, we acted immediately," Sink said.

Trustees say there are no state statutes or provisions that deal with athletic expenditures, and they are asking the state board and state legislature to adopt new rules.  

Much of the disagreement between the state and local board centers around the examination process that took place after the audit. The state board released its resolution after disbanding a joint committee that comprised both state board members and local board members. Sink and Campbell said the state board wasn't happy with the tenor of the joint committee's investigation.

Sink said the state board's investigator never interviewed him or baseball players, and that the state board is making an example out of the college in its attempt to centralize power.

"There's a total lack of due process for me and a total disrespect for trustees of the college," Sink said. "The state board overstepped their boundaries -- personnel decisions are made by local boards in North Carolina."

Campbell said this is part of a statewide debate on board jurisdictions. Blue Ridge is sending a delegation to the state's community college trustees association asking the group to engage the state board in a dialogue.  

Sullivan, of the state community college system, said there are times when it is appropriate for the state board to exert its authority, and he doesn't expect any backpedaling by the state. "We pride ourselves in North Carolina on local autonomy," he said. "But when issues such as these come up, they threaten the vitality of local autonomy.”


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