President Michael McCall's $600,000-plus compensation package has been a sore point for many Kentuckians — not to mention a demoralizing extravagance as the Kentucky Community and Technical College System struggles to overcome eroding state support and soaring tuition.
Now we learn the KCTCS regents have compounded the insult to hard-working taxpayers and debt-laden students by agreeing to continue McCall's $324,321 base salary for a year into his upcoming retirement.
How tone-deaf and insensitive to public opinion can a public board be?
And how can Kentuckians trust this board to oversee the search for McCall's successor as head of the 92,000-student system?
If there's any way the KCTCS regents can revisit this bad decision, they should.
Unfortunately, it's part of a contract that KCTCS board chairman P.G. Peeples of Lexington and McCall signed in December 2012, raising serious questions about whether the board performed its due diligence before approving the golden parachute, in return for which the contract says McCall "shall perform duties as requested by his successor."
The clause was brought to public attention last week by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
Granted, KCTCS is far from alone in heaping Wall Street-sized rewards on top administrators.
The University of Kentucky paid Charles Wethington in the neighborhood of $2 million in the 11 years after he left the presidency, until 2012 when UK began reducing its work force by 500 positions and Wethington retired.
McCall became the poster child for higher-ed executive excess in 2007 when the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that he was by far the nation's most richly compensated community college administrator. We don't need to remind readers that Kentucky is one of the nation's poorest states.
In 2013, McCall's base pay was enhanced by a $78,509 bonus, a $90,000 housing allowance and an automobile allowance of $43,200 for a total of $641,699.
While McCall's car allowance is slightly more than Kentucky's median household income, KCTCS tuition has risen higher than that of public two-year colleges in any of our border states or the 12 states tracked by the Southern Regional Education Board.
Meanwhile, full-time KCTCS faculty experienced a 7.6 percent decline in inflation-adjusted average salary from 2006-07 to 2011-12. Full-time faculty are paid $49,300 on average compared with $51,800 in SREB states. Close to two-thirds of all KCTCS classes are taught by instructors, not professors.
We're not suggesting that paying McCall less could have solved KCTCS's funding problems. But it becomes harder for the public and lawmakers to sympathize with the needs of a system that's so casual about lavishing big perks on the top. The rationale for McCall's exorbitant pay has always been that he was the first president after Kentucky merged the community colleges and technical schools as part of higher-ed reforms enacted in 1997.
While KCTCS's growth has proved the wisdom of the reforms many times over, more recent declines in enrollment are cause for concern. And the state Senate during the recent session seemed to put more faith in local colleges, rather than the KCTCS central administration, to make decisions about construction needs.
This is a good time to take stock of where KCTCS is and needs to go to fulfill its role as Kentucky's open door to higher learning.
The bad decision on McCall's pay is just one of the concerns that should be motivating such an assessment.