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Audit delay causes problems for WV community colleges, officials say


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Recent sanctions on the state’s public colleges could make it harder for community colleges to launch programs quick enough to respond to the needs of the workforce, said Sarah Tucker, chancellor of the Community and Technical College System.

The sanctions, which came after West Virginia submitted a statewide audit of its finances to the federal government late for a third year in a row, means colleges will need approval before launching or ending any new academic program.

“This was not a sanction we saw coming, or that we understood might be possible,” Tucker told an interim legislative committee Monday afternoon. “For my personal opinion, I think it’s a pretty significant overreach.”

The sanctions will last for at least two years. Another set of sanctions, which slows down how college access federal financial aid dollars, will last for at least five years.

Tucker said it’s not uncommon for a business to approach a community college and ask it to start a one-year certificate program in the next six weeks. That had been possible before the sanctions, and Tucker said colleges can launch a program in a few days in some cases.

“They (the federal education department) won’t say if it will take a week to review or if it will take two weeks to review or if will take two months,” Tucker said. “They won’t give us any timeline at all.”

The American Association of Community Colleges has gone to bat for West Virginia and is asking the U.S. Department of Education to overturn the sanctions, according to Tucker. The group, which advocates for federal community college policies, is worried that West Virginia’s sanctions could mean future states would see similar sanctions.

These programmatic sanctions likely won’t have as much of an effect on the four-year colleges. There, administrators can take months or years to launch new academic programs and there is less of a need to meet pressure from businesses.

The Higher Education Policy Commission, the CTCS’ sister agency which oversees four-year colleges, recently approved three new programs. Commissioners approved two programs at West Virginia State University: a master of sciences in sports studies at and a bachelor of science in engineering with a major in chemical engineering. They also approved an Earth and space science teacher certification program at Fairmont State University.

Jessica Kennedy, a spokeswoman for the HEPC, said those programs wouldn’t need to be approved since their planning was done before the sanctions took affect.

So far, only two colleges in West Virginia have needed financial help from the state’s budget office to cover expenses now that school is back in session, said Department of Administration Secretary John Myers.

Myers said the state’s budget office would pull general revenue the schools would normally get in the second quarter of the financial year and give it to the schools in the current quarter. Then, after the school draws down money from the federal education department, the school would give back the money.

Those schools, Bluefield State College and Concord University, needed help because of financial sanctions the U.S. Department of Administration slapped on the state’s public college following the late audit submission.

“The governor is commissioning a third-party investigation of the issue,” Myers told an interim legislative committee Monday afternoon. “Upon completion of this third-party investigation – I’m sure not only will an analysis take place but there will be some additional actions that occur as a result of the recommendation.”

Butch Antolini, the governor’s communications director, did not respond to a request for comment. Previously, Gov. Justice said that “heads will roll” as a result of the late audit. No firings at the Department of Administration or in higher education have since been announced.

So far, most state officials have pointed to the Consolidated Public Retirement Board as the group at fault for the state’s late audit. That group — which falls under the Department of Administration — has to prepare information about employees’ pension in order to comply with federal accounting standards. Agencies can’t complete their audits to give to the state until they have that pension information.

Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, asked in an interim legislative education accountability meeting Monday morning how many higher education employees are enrolled in the old teacher retirement system. Since it’s a low amount, he suggested the pension information could have been sent out sooner.

There are 294 higher education employees in the old retirement system, according to Diane Holley-Brown, a Department of Administration spokeswoman. That system stopped enrolling employees in 1991, and new employees are enrolled in a private retirement fund not managed by the state.

It was not possible for the retirement board to prepared pension data for just the institutions of higher education, Holley-Brown said in an email. That information is based on a single employer’s contribution to the fund compared to 900 different employers’ information.

Should the state be late again submitting its audit, Tucker said, the financial sanctions would be increased. It would mean that colleges could only draw down federal student aid money every 30 days, instead of at the beginning of the semester.

“We cannot afford to do that — at all,” Tucker said. “That would be a significant problem.”

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