Essex County College has been placed on probation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, according to a documented official action taken by the Commission at their Nov. 16 meeting.
The college was warned a year ago by the Middle States Commission--the entity which grants accreditation to area colleges--that it was in jeopardy of losing its accreditation for its failure to comply with standards, including governance, student retention policies and institutional resources.
Although the Commission has now deemed the college in compliance with Student Admissions and Retention, the college has been placed on probation due to its noncompliance with Institutional Resources and Leadership and Governance, according to the Commission's report.
The college remains accredited while on probation, with federal regulations limiting the period of noncompliance to two years.
A monitoring report--due from the college on March 1, 2018--must include documented evidence that the school has achieved compliance, including the development and implementation of a financial planning and budgeting process, both institution-wide and among departments.
The Commission has also requested the college implement institutional controls to deal with financial, administrative and auxiliary operations, along with policies and procedures to determine allocation of assets and an annual independent audit confirming financial responsibility.
Governing documents, including bylaws, to delineate governance structure and provide for collegial governance are also to be provided to the Commission.
Commission representatives will visit the college following submission of the monitoring report.
Notification of the college's probationary status is to be sent to the Department of Education and all accrediting agencies of Essex County College.
Saint James A.M.E. Church pastor Rev. Ronald Slaughter, who has called for the resignation of several board members, reiterated the seriousness of the situation.
"This is your last slap on the wrist," he said. "This is major. This means, get your house in order. It proves that we weren't grandstanding. It's time we put these students before politics. The accrediting body is not impressed by your political power."
Slaughter cited the recent college board appointment of Joanna Wright, a South Orange Board of Education member serving a term until 2019.
"Now their latest appointee to the board is an elected official," Slaughter said, noting that Wright is already serving the public and county. "Why add this to her plate? Why not choose one of the two citizens who sent their bios to the county office per the statute? Something doesn't smell right about this."
Slaughter noted the two candidates were African American women.
To add further insult to injury, said Slaughter, Gov. Chris Christie recently removed college board vice chair Leila Sadeghi.
"She was the only Ph.D. on the board and he replaced her," Slaughter said.
Elected faculty representative to the ECC Board of Trustees Michael Franks said that while the Middle States Commission on Higher Education has cited the issues of finance, he is far more concerned about governance at the college and the process in which board members are chosen.
“Middle States is apparently aware of the politics on our board,” Franks said. “The county has ignored the statute how board members are elected.”
According to N.J.S.A.18A:64A-8 entitled “Trustee Search Committee,” the statute requires the search committee to conduct an “independent and autonomous search for trustee nominees” to the Essex County Board of Trustees.
But Franks alleges the process is being ignored.
“Whether or not they’re good, some of the appointments that have been made are illegal,” he said.
Alleged violations include appointing members that have not lived in the county for the required amount of time and the appointment of a convicted felon.
Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo recently agreed to increase funding to Essex County College.
At a meeting in mid-October attended by DiVincenzo, his Chief of Staff Phil Alagia, Rep. Donald Payne, Jr., ECC President Anthony Munroe, Newark/North Jersey Community of Black Churchmen Chairman Bishop Jethro James and several ECC representatives, the county executive agreed to give the college $1.5 million in operating expenses, a one-time payment of $1 million toward operational legal expenses, $1.25 million minor cap for annual funding and $1.25 million as a one-time bond project match.
The college had requested for fiscal year 2018 an additional $2 million for operating expenses, $800,000 for Operation of Public Safety Academy, $1,000,000 for operational legal expenses, $2,000,000 for fund balance, $1.2 million minor cap for annual funding and a one-time request of $2 million for a bonds project match.
According to a 2018 ECC budget report, a study conducted by Harvard economist Raj Chetty indicates that although ECC students have some of the lowest family incomes among their peers when they enter college—a median annual family income of $36,000—30 percent of these students are able to move up two or more income levels.
“Essex County College has entered fiscal year 2018 in a state of fiscal exigency after ending FY 2017 with a deficit, a depleted reserve fund and cash-flow challenges,” the report states. “In addition, the College has suffered a serious decrease in tuition revenue due to a declining enrollment trend. This perfect storm has created a real financial problem for the College.”
The report also notes that continued reliance on tuition dollars places the “burden of balancing the budget on our students who are already financially strained.”
Although the county has supported the college, the report states the county’s operational contribution has lagged, with contributions remaining flat for the last 20 years despite an increased student population.
In 1997, the county’s contribution was $12,000,000, or 33 percent of the college’s annual $36,443,155 budget.
In 2017, the county contributed $11,950,000, or 20 percent of the college’s $60, 970,177 budget. An additional one-time allocation of $1,000,000.00 was also contributed in 2017.
Former ECC President A. Zachary Yamba noted that while the school is headed in the right direction, there is more work to be done.
"Dr. Munroe said the additional funding is a step in the right direction," he said of the current college president. "But it doesn't address all of the shortfalls."
Yamba said although changes have been made at the leadership level, there are still issues that must be addressed.
"The process is still a point of contention," he said. "The board has reorganized but the process is still a work in progress."
But while there may be an end in sight to the college’s financial woes, Franks said the issue of the college’s board of trustees allegedly being appointed in direct violation of state law is the issue of note.
"We believe that the college can be fixed," he said. "The issue we don't have control over is appointment of the board members. The faculty’s problem with all this is that all of these appointees are appointed in opposition to the statute. All we’re looking for is the process.”
The school has been in turmoil since the 2010 resignation of Yamba, with four different presidents at the helm in just seven years.
The college was later catapulted into the spotlight in 2015 after an internal investigation revealed the school’s Vice President of Administration and Finance, Joyce Harley, failed to exercise proper financial oversight after Michael Smart, former head track and field coach at the college, was investigated for stealing more than $150,000 in school funds.
Former Essex County College President Gale Gibson had called for disciplinary action to be taken against Harley but instead was terminated after bringing attention to Harley's alleged mismanagement.
Gibson is suing the school over her firing, alleging that she was retaliated against for speaking out against Harley, one of several former employees suing over firings in 2016 alone.
An internal investigation into Harley is ongoing, with accusations including the misappropriation of funds for personal gain, reimbursements inconsistent with college policy and circumventing college procedures.
Harley has also been accused of bullying and intimidation which resulted in the recommendation that she attend a course in workplace civility.
Harley was placed on paid administrative leave in September following months of calls for her resignation.
In an Oct. 24 letter to DiVincenzo from State Senator Ronald L. Rice, the long-time senator expressed concern over the possibility of the college losing its accreditation.
Rice—who is Chairman of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus and a graduate of Essex County College--noted politics as the reason for the instability surrounding the college, referring to the school as a “sinking ship.”
“Essex County Community College is a valuable part of our academic community,” Rice wrote. “The student population comes from struggling black, brown immigrant and culturally disadvantaged white families. In so many instances, their future depends on Essex County Community College."
Rice noted that many ECC students come from elderly and single head of household families, while others are former inmates or "gang-bangers, Bloods and Crips who are trying to redirect their lives in a positive way."
Bishop Jethro James of the Newark/North Jersey Committee of Black Churchmen noted the city’s clergy has taken the lead in bringing the issues at the college to light. James, who attended the mid-October meeting at the college, said he hopes the promised funding will come through.
“I was there when he made those promises,” James said. “Those promises were made in front of several witnesses.”
Franks noted the issue is not about individuals.
“It’s about the process," he said. "The students are the ones paying the price. We’re trying to make Essex County College the beacon of hope it once was.”