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Hughes Gets Contract Extension, Some Gateway Board Members Unhappy

Discord lingers between members of the Gateway Community & Technical College Board of Directors and the school's president & CEO.

It was announced at last week's Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce annual dinner in Covington that Dr. Ed Hughes received a 4-year extension on his contract. He has been head of Gateway since 2001 and has championed its expansion into Downtown Covington.

"I'm very proud of what our college has done, the employees, our community, the way we have come together," Hughes told The River City News. "I think we've got some pretty exciting things going on over the next three or four years."

The college already operates out of its Urban Center inside the former Two Rivers Middle School and recently opened its new Technology, Innovation, and Enterprise Center after renovating the former Marx Furniture Building on Madison Avenue. Buildings at the corners of Pike & Madison and Fifth & Scott are also under renovation and will soon house programs and offices for Gateway.

When the sprawling urban metro campus is complete, it is projected to attract 5,000 students to Northern Kentucky's urban center.

Gateway Board Chairman Jeff Groob was not pleased to learn about Hughes's contract extension. "The new Board is in the process of taking a long, hard look at newly released numbers showing an unexpected enrollment drop for the current fall semester that is 25% below projections," Groob said in a statement provided to The River City News. "The administration's goal was 5,089 students; actual combined enrollment for this semester on Gateway's four campuses is 3,849 students. That's a shortfall of 1,240 students, which may have significant budget and economic development implications."

"It's a bit inaccurate to say we are 25% down," Hughes responded. He said that the data Groob cited was from a report on September 7 and what is not included in the final tally is the number of students associated with a 12-week session that started on September 15, dual credit enrollments which are recorded in October, and the number of firefighter certificates that are also recorded in October, typically. Last year 244 firefighters were trained at Gateway. 

The final 8-week session and its students are not included in the figure cited by Groob either, which Hughes called, a year-to-date reflection of enrollment. "We are very confident that we will certainly exceed last year and be relatively close to (5,089)," Hughes said.

The rift between Groob and Hughes was on display publicly at the board's final meeting in 2013. The terms of all the board members would expire after that meeting and only Groob and former Campbell Co. Judge-Executive Ken Paul would be re-appointed in 2014 by Gov. Steve Beshear. Groob raised questions about whether Gateway could sustain its efforts to fulfill obligations to the manufacturing community through its training programs in Boone County while simultaneously trying to build an urban campus in Covington.

"There is not enough money in the State of Kentucky and we are storming a lot of beaches at the same time which means we may have to throw the manufacturers or Covington overboard," Groob said at the time. He predicted that there would be little to no money made available for the Covington campus until enrollment numbers improved at the Boone campus.

The Kentucky Community & Technical College System (KCTCS) was given the opportunity by the Kentucky general Assembly to utilize a "Build Smart" program, which includes the issuance of agency bonds to cover 3/4 of the construction of a new facility on state community college campus. $11.25 million was alloted for Gateway which Hughes said is confident in its ability in raising the remainder. The Bank of Kentucky's Bob Zapp is leading the fundraising effort which will lead to another building constructed in Covington.

"I'm impatient," Hughes said. "I'd like to be farther along, certainly, but given the circumstances of state funding and the cuts, I felt very good that we were able to get some funding in the Build Smart program."

Groob has also showed impatience and has asked Dr. Hughes to present a plan for boosting enrollment. At its most recent board meeting, Groob invited several state legislators who showed up at the Boone campus to watch as Hughes promised to have the presentation ready for the September board meeting, and to hear the soon-to-retire Dr. Michael McCall, president of KCTCS, who oriented the new board members (named earlier this year) to their roles. That September meeting was canceled but had been set for the night before the Chamber dinner where Chamber Chair Debbie Simpson announced Hughes's contract extension to the supportive crowd.

New board member Paul Whalen also expressed his disappointment in how he heard of Hughes's extension. "As a member of the Gateway Board of Directors, the CEO/President should have the courtesy to inform the entire board when KCTCS gives you such an extension prior to making it public," Whalen wrote in an email obtained by The River City News. "It has been my experience in the past on two public boards that the Superintendent and the Commissioner gave the entire board a "heads-up" as to personnel matters and news about the school or department prior to it being made public."

"Along with the disappointing performance of the Boone County Center for Advanced Manufacturing relative to the urgent workforce needs of local employers," Groob's statement continued, "we find ourselves in an extremely serious situation, one that the new Board is carefully, thoughtfully, and professionally seeing to understand."

Former state senator and state secretary of education Joe Meyer of Covington, who attended the August board meeting with the legislators, also shares Groob's concerns, and wrote in an op-ed earlier this year that Gateway's move to Covington represents a net loss of students for the college.

As for the contract extension, it is offered solely at the discretion of KCTCS president McCall, not the local board, which has limited power. That's something new board members should learn, said Covington business owner Brent Cooper, who served on the Gateway board previously. "Gateway's board is an advisory board, not an oversight board," Cooper said. "I think that surprises a lot of people, including new board members."

"The fact is, Ed Hughes has received glowing reviews from peers, the business community, and the KCTCS President over a long period of time. Every year I was involved on the Gateway Board, Ed did an excellent job. Our Board said that consistently and clearly, and his last review, less than a year ago, was terrific. Any reference to preliminary data, without context or explanation, especially from the Board Chair, is troubling."

"In the past, I've not made it a routine for me to tell previous board that I even had a contract extension or any of those details and usually that has come from the chair or the chair of what's called our evaluation committee," Hughes said. "We have not had a board meeting since I signed a contract."

Hughes said he was surprised that Simpson announced the news publicly. "If the current board wants me to annually apprise them of my contract status, I'll be more than happy to do that. It's certainly not a secret."

Hughes also said that he will have the presentation requested by Groob ready for the next board meeting in November. As for any personality conflicts on the board, Hughes said that he looks forward to working to foster relationships. "I think we all acknowledge that we had some bumps in the road, some differences of opinion, perhaps differences in style, but I would not be able to characterize the relationship with the current chair right now as being anything other than, we have a developing relationship," Hughes said. "He's just been elected chair and we have five new board members appointed by the governor, a new student representative. I'm hopeful in the next several months we will all be able to have a board retreat where a lot of these activities, these issues of relationships, can be built and enhanced."

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News

Photo: Ed Hughes (top left), Hughes & Groob (center), TIE Building in Downtown Covington (bottom right)/RCN