MCC board appoints acting president
February 22, 2023
The Mesalands Community College board of trustees appointed Allen Moss as acting interim president last Tuesday, but not without testy opposition from executive staff who labeled the move as “retaliatory” against them and accused the board of violating its own policies.
The board also approved a fiscal solvency plan of salary and program cuts for the troubled college and moved to implement them immediately. The move clears the way for the New Mexico Department of Higher Education’s plan of issuing up to $4.7 million in emergency funds for Mesalands to cover the rest of the fiscal year through June.
Absent from Tuesday’s special meeting was Mesalands President Gregg Busch, who also didn’t attend a previous special meeting after the executive staff, faculty senate and staff senate gave him a no-confidence vote.
Busch is accused by executive staff and others of disregarding warnings of the college’s finances and threatening to fire those who revealed the state’s oversight plan for Mesalands.
Busch said in a letter to the board earlier this month he was taking a medical leave of absence due to COVID-19 and Parkinson’s disease.
Mesalands chief communications officer Josh McVey said the last time Busch was on campus was Jan. 30; the executive staff took its no-confidence vote on Feb. 5.
Busch’s wife, Mary Beth Busch of the Center for Workforce Development, and his son, faculty member Nicholas Busch, also haven’t been seen on campus since that time, McVey said.
A message requesting comment was left Monday on Busch’s cellphone and not immediately returned.
After a one-hour closed executive session, the board moved to appoint Moss, senior executive director of concurrent enrollment and academic outreach, as its interim acting president.
Chief of staff Duane Brooks called the appointment as “retaliatory” against the executive staff in not choosing one of its members for the position. He said the board also should have consulted with New Mexico Independent Community Colleges before the action.
Joel Kiser, vice president of academic affairs and a member of the executive staff, twice asked the board in response to Moss’ appointment: “How does this decision best serve the faculty, staff, students and the community of Tucumcari?”
Board Chairman Jim Streetman said Moss held more academic experience than anyone on the executive staff and that the college needed a “neutral” figure to direct it.
“We feel like we need somebody that is neutral to this, partially because there’s been too much finger-pointing from both sides,” Streetman said. “The finger-pointing needs to stop, and stop right now. The board of trustees feels this is the best choice at this point in time.”
Moss said he was asked by Streetman, plus a few staffers and faculty members, whether he was interested in the position. Moss said he initially “laughed it off” but would do it if it would help Mesalands.
Executive human resources director Russell Irby, a member of the executive staff, said any conversation with Moss “outside of a public forum” would violate the board of trustees’ own policies.
Streetman disputed that, saying Moss’ potential hiring was a personnel issue and was conducted lawfully in a closed executive session.
Brooks said Moss is “a wonderful person” for the acting interim president position, but noted no action had been taken regarding Busch.
“We’re still paying him as a sitting president,” he said. “That doesn’t show us as very fiscally responsible.”
Irby asked: “What would happen to Mr. Moss if Mr. Busch walks back on campus?”
“Dr. Busch will not be back on campus,” Streetman replied, without elaboration.
Irby responded: “I have no paperwork in any form that he won’t be back here tomorrow.”
With that, all the board members individually said they were comfortable with Moss running Mesalands.
“We need to move on,” board member Tom Sidwell added.
The board members’ voice of support for Moss seemed to satisfy the executive staff on who would oversee the college. The staff later accepted Moss’ invitation to meet with them personally.
But the meeting turned testy again.
“You’re showing us disrespect by not considering a person at this table for an interim president to lead the college out of this,” Brooks said, then referred to Busch. “The person responsible for this is not here. They’ve walked away. Drove away. Left town.”
Irby added: “I’m still uncovering federal violations that were done by this previous group, by the previous president who’s not here.”
A day later, Brooks sounded a more conciliatory tone in a news release issued by the college.
“I and the Executive Staff have the utmost confidence in Dr. Moss and his ability to lead the College through this difficult time,” he stated.
Moss stated in the release: “First, I am extremely grateful and humbled to be asked to step into this role. My top priority is to the students and ensure they are successful. My second is to help the staff, faculty and the community to come together in successfully navigating the challenges that lay ahead. I look forward to working with the New Mexico Higher Education Department in shepherding the College to a successful solvent future.”
The HED on Wednesday praised Moss’ hire.
“The New Mexico Higher Education Department is relieved to know that the Mesalands Community College Board of Trustees has appointed an interim president and approved the implementation of their fiscal solvency plan, both of which will enable the college to move forward toward resolving its funding shortfall and other critical issues that are impacting students, college employees and the community,” wrote HED public information officer Stephanie Montoya.
“We will work in collaboration with Interim President Allen Moss to find solutions that address the fiscal situation at hand and rectify any practices that would continue to jeopardize the college. The department remains steadfast in ensuring full transparency and accountability throughout this process in our capacity as the chief oversight agency of public higher education institutions in New Mexico.”
Streetman, noting the board hadn’t received a financial report “in quite some time,” said the college needed to produce monthly balance sheets, cash flow sheets, copy check registers, bank statements, accounts receivable and payable, how COVID-19 relief funds were received and spent and other financial documents by the board’s next regular meeting, scheduled for Feb. 21.
Chief financial officer Blanca Pauliukevicius, hired in August, said she had no ability to produce those statements because the college is two years behind on its accounts.
“We don’t have the system to produce financial statements,” she said, adding she hired a vendor in November to help her understaffed office compile reports and was working on weekends in an effort to catch up.
“I am afraid you have not been reading my reports,” Pauliukevicius said to Streetman. “It seems like you are not understanding the position we’re in. I cannot produce all that you’re asking me. My team cannot work any harder, sir.”
Pauliukevicius said a draft of the fiscal-year 2021 audit submitted to the state auditor was “awful.”
McVey said a previous CFO, Stephanie Otero, “let us know we were in trouble” financially.
Another CFO hired early in Busch’s tenure, Hazel Rountree, refused to take on those duties after seeing the situation and was reassigned to another post, McVey said.
Brooks said Busch’s action to increase faculty and staff salaries in early 2022 cost the college an additional $800,000.
McVey asked why there was no sustainability study or an assessment of funds available before the pay raises were implemented.
Brooks said the pay raises were done without the HED’s knowledge, and Mesalands went over its appropriations budget by 150%.
Without emergency funds, Mesalands only has enough money to make payroll through Feb. 24.
The fiscal solvency plan approved by the board imposes a 5% pay cut for employees earning between $50,000 to $80,000; a 10% pay cut for staff earning $80,000 to $110,000; and a 15% cut for anyone earning over $110,000.
A proposed 2% pay cut for staff making between $35,000 and $50,000 was eliminated at the recommendation of Streetman.
The plan also imposes a hiring freeze, eliminates low-enrollment classes, eliminates cross country and golf, eliminates travel and consolidates contracts.
Brooks said those cuts might not be all.
“We may be in a situation where we have to do more,” he said.
During public comments, Ernie Rogers urged a review of the solvency plan to hike fees at the fitness center from $12.25 to $37.50. He said the plan wasn’t discussed with fitness center staff and would be “not fair” to the community.
Marty Garcia also said eliminating golf “would set us back years” with the program and advocated he continue to recruit athletes at reduced pay.
Paul Moss said the solvency plan was not submitted to faculty and staff until Feb. 8 — one day before the first special meeting.
Irby suggested, for the sake of transparency and more community involvement, holding future Mesalands meetings at least partially in-person.
Mesalands has held meetings entirely by videoconference since spring 2020, early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Streetman said the board probably could do that, but not until March at the earliest.