Non-partisan audit reveals lack of clear CCSNH policies

Monitor staff
Friday, August 25, 2017

Officials at New Hampshire’s community college system have pledged to make improvements after a performance audit by the state’s non-partisan Legislative Budget Assistant found that unclear policies and inadequate controls had lead to inefficiencies, unequal spending between schools, and, in some cases, “questionable spending.”

The nearly 100-page report, which studied the system’s operations between fiscal years 2012 and 2016, was presented to the state’s Joint Fiscal Committee on Friday.

It found that CCSNH lacked clear policies “in key business areas such as finance, budgeting, capital planning, procurement, data management, fleet management, and information technology project planning.” That had resulted in different colleges completing the same tasks in different ways, but also “instances of bartering, conflicts of interest, and questionable spending.”

Paul Holloway, the chairman of the Community College System of New Hampshire’s board of trustees, said in a statement that college officials would work to implement the report’s recommendations. In that same statement, Ross Gittell, the system’s chancellor, said that a task force would be created to keep tabs on the progress of reforms.

“In most cases, CCSNH has already made changes within areas identified within the audit period, or is in the process of doing so, and the Board will monitor ongoing work related to this report,” Holloway wrote.

Auditors found multiple instances of purchases by executive management “which, at best, were of limited benefit to the mission of CCSNH”, including $32,500 on a car for a college president, who was already provided a car by CCSNH, and $34,000 on a college president’s inauguration.

Auditors included responses from CCSHN within their report. Officials with the colleges agreed that “some of the individual expenses were of questionable value” and that stronger purchasing controls should be put in place. But they argued the all-wheel vehicle was necessary for winter driving and that the inauguration had doubled as a fundraising event, netting the college system over $100,000.

Because the community colleges didn’t have any set policies around how to allocate about $40 million in state funding, one school received about $8,200 per student while another got $2,800, the report found. Officials agreed they needed to study and formalize how funding was apportioned between the colleges, but also noted that rural, smaller colleges, who had difficulties achieving economies at scale, tended to receive more money per-student.

The report also found that the interactions between the colleges and the CCSNH Foundation, which is essentially the system’s independent, nonprofit fundraising arm, badly needed to be made clear. ​

A lack of clarity about decision-making led to deteriorating relations between the two parties, with the community college system at one point withdrawing roughly 80 percent of the money it had charged the Foundation with investing. The Foundation board twice voted on disbanding itself entirely – and narrowly missed the two-thirds majority it required to do so. One Foundation board member told auditors that the “dysfunction was paralyzing.”

Officials with both the Foundation and the community colleges concurred with ​the auditor’s recommendation to develop a formal process to govern interactions between the two parties, and said they’d already signed an agreement to do just that. They disagreed, however, with auditors about creating greater space between the two organizations in order to ensure the Foundation’s independence.

State Sen. Chuck Morse, who chairs the Joint Fiscal Committee, said that while the audit was “concerning,” he was heartened by the response of CCSNH officials, who he said appeared willing to make the necessary changes.

“The response from the community colleges today was a pleasant surprise because the audit was concerning for all of us,” the Salem Republican said. “I think the concern is that down the road it doesn’t happen again. That’s what audits are all about.”

The audit came at the request of State Sen. John Reagan, a Deerfield Republican, who last year chaired the Performance Audit and Oversight Committee.

“It reflects what I had heard – that there are a lot of management missteps or problems that had resulted in a lot of distress among the faculty and students,” he said.

Reagan said he was more skeptical about the system acting on the recommendations, and said they’d been “non-cooperative” with the Public Higher Education Study Committee, which he chairs. But he also credited them with doing good work, particularly in partnering with employers to create pathways between programs of study and gainful employement.

CCSNH comprises seven institutions: Great Bay Community College, Lakes Region Community College, Manchester Community College, NHTI-Concord, Nashua Community College, River Valley Community College, and White Mountains Community College.

The full report can be found online at gencourt.state.nh.us/lba/

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)