Secrecy, big salaries at KCTCS

If the Board of Regents of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System hoped picking an insider as the new president would solidify confidence in the system they certainly went about it in the wrong way.

Wednesday the board met behind closed doors for an hour, emerging to announce that Jay Box, now chancellor of the system, will succeed Mike McCall, the only president KCTCS has ever had.

It wasn't much of a surprise because the week before, in a meeting that was supposedly open but no one was told about, the board had decided that Box was the preferred and only candidate for the job. Despite a national search, no other candidates were identified publicly.

Board chair P.G. Peeples said he had no idea the media had not been notified of the first meeting and apologized for the ommission.

However, the KCTCS staff responsible for keeping the public informed of public business hunkered down with a hair-splitting, legalistic justification of why it didn't notify the media. The staff also apparently didn't see fit to tell the board or Peeples that it had decided not to post usual notifications of the meeting.

Given that Box has been second in command for five years, it seems unlikely that a culture change among the well-paid upper management of the system is in the offing, leaving us with a public institution in the hands of people who seem comfortable running the whole show without informing the public or consulting the board of citizens appointed to oversee it.

The system — 72 campuses and 92,000 students — was born in 1997 when the state's community colleges, which had been run by the University of Kentucky, were merged with the state's technical schools as part of higher education reform.

The idea was to offer affordable, accessible post-secondary education to Kentuckians close to home.

Under the leadership of McCall, the two branches have become a strong, single system. Last year, 10,000 KCTCS students transferred to four-year schools and 28,000 were awarded career-enhancing credentials.

But KCTCS faces a rough future. Enrollment this fall fell to 92,000 from 108,000 in 2011, and the number of credentials earned has not grown in the last couple of years.

No doubt, these numbers grow out of the most distressing statistic: KCTCS tuition is the highest among two-year colleges in our region.

KCTCS leaders point to the $38 million in state funding that has been cut since 2008 to explain increases in tuition and fees.

But the financial stress has not been felt among the system's top administrators.

McCall is the highest paid community college system administrator in the nation, with total compensation of almost $650,000 a year. That includes annual allowances of $90,000 for housing and $43,000 for an automobile.

In 2013 salaries for the five people identified as the president's cabinet, including Box, combined to more than $900,000. Remarkably, as tuition has risen and teachers' salaries have stagnated, McCall was awarded a 2 percent raise last year, and will be paid $300,000 in the coming year to advise Box, who has worked for five years as his second-in-command.

In 2009 the KCTCS board voted to eliminate tenure for new faculty, although ultimately the attorney general said the board didn't have the authority to make that decision. Rep. Rick Nelson, who requested the AG's opinion, took the board to task for following the administration's recommendations without question. "A lot of those board members have been snowed," Nelson said at the time, "they've got to formulate opinions of their own."

It was good advice then, and it's good advice now.

Although McCall's $300,000 victory lap is assured under a contract, the board should ask him to forego it. He's been well rewarded for his work and certainly Box has had enough time to benefit from his counsel. Next month, when the board decides on a compensation plan for Box, it should keep in mind the message it will be sending to thousands of teachers and staff expected to work for very little and tens of thousands of students who are struggling to make ends meet.

Finally, the board must insist that this important public institution do its work in public.