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Dozens Pack Room of Tense Gateway Board Meeting

A special meeting of the Board of Directors at Gateway Community & Technical College drew a surprisingly large crowd on Monday afternoon, a crowd filled with Northern Kentucky civic leaders and members of the community.

Perhaps the assembly was not so surprising considering that the difficult relationship emerging between Gateway President & CEO Dr. Ed Hughes and Board Chairman Jeff Groob has been the source of coverage in The River City News for the past few weeks. Prior to the meeting, emails circulated among Northern Kentucky leaders encouraging their attendance.

The call to action? To support Hughes.

Monday's meeting at the newly renovated Marx Building which houses the school's Technology, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship programs in Downtown Covington, was called by Groob to handle the procedural issue of appointing members to committees, a task that would have been accomplished at the board's September meeting which was canceled. The day after the canceled meeting, it was announced that Hughes received a four-year contract extension, news that sparked a harsh rebuke from Groob and board member Paul Whalen. 

In the days that followed the news of Hughes's new contract, a report released by the federal government showed Gateway as having nearly the highest student loan default rate in the Kentucky Community & Technical College System. A week later, that same federal agency awarded Gateway millions of dollars to better reach a difficult population, making it one of only twenty-four schools across the country to receive the funding.

Meanwhile, a scathing op-ed published in The River City News charged that Groob had a personal agenda motivating his public disagreements with Hughes. That issue and others became the source of laughter and contention during Monday's meeting, as the discussion turned to a proposal about a board retreat to help smooth some of the difficulties between the board and the college.

"There are no personal agendas here," Groob said, as some folks of the crowded room started to snicker audibly. "If somebody can identify a personal agenda, I'd like to know what it is. We may differ on where - "

Board member Chad Day interrupted to say that there was no established procedure for the public to interact with the board. Groob said he was just responding to the laughter.

"Some of the issues before us that need to be addressed in a retreat are not just communication," Groob said, "but go beyond that to substantive things, like the default rate."

"Excuse me, I'm sorry," Hughes interjected, frustrated. "The default rate is clearly presented to the board and the community. The default rate is what it is. We are taking aggressive measures. We're not the only institution in American that has a default rate. We were very forthright with that. To suggest otherwise is unacceptable. You got an advanced copy of what you're going to talk about. This prior board also had a discussion and while it may be a footnote on the minutes, the budget committee met a year ago, we put it in our budget resolution that we would be working on default - "

Day interrupted to remind the board that the default rate was not on the agenda for discussion and that in a special meeting, the discussion is expected to stick to the specifics on the agenda.

The board voted to schedule a board retreat facilitated by an outside third party, either through KCTCS, the Council on Postsecondary Education, or an independent agency related to community colleges suggested by Hughes. But even reaching the vote on a retreat required some maneuvering and tense exchanges.

"It seemed to me that in light of recent events, we ought to have a working retreat," Hughes said. "I think it's something this board needs and it's something I would welcome so we can get to know each other individually and collectively." Groob suggested that the issue could be placed for discussion on the November agenda, but not the special meeting's because of the rules. 

"We need it before November," Hughes said. We have so much to do. I would encourage the board not to wait."

"I don't think we meet frequently enough," said board member Joseph Creaghead. "There's a lot of issues going on. I support the idea of having a retreat." Creaghead said that newly proposed committees were worthy of discussion at such a retreat. Groob proposed three new ad-hoc committees: Needs, Programs & Outcomes; Facilities & Finance; and a "super committee" that combines the bylaws and presidential evaluation committees. "I look at these committee suggestions and I think there's a huge amount of dialogue that needs to be happening with the school. I would encourage us to schedule a retreat as soon as we can. We're not going to meet for another six weeks and that's a long time."

Toward the end of the meeting, the agenda called for the board to enter into a private executive session for the discussion of a personnel matter. The subject was likely Hughes, but KCTCS general counsel Pam Duncan suggested that it may not be appropriate for the board to meet in such a matter because it doesn't employ anyone and cannot take any disciplinary action, meaning the state statute that allows for executive sessions does not apply to Gateway's board.

"Based on current court opinions, it is inappropriate to go into executive session," Duncan said, citing an opinion of the Kentucky Attorney General involving a case in Jefferson County Public Schools. In fact, even evaluations of Dr. Hughes in the future would need to be done in the form of a public meeting, Duncan suggested, when asked. 
 
"At no point have we identified the subject of this session," Groob said. "Anything to that effect is speculative."
 
"You have to have a specific matter to discuss," Duncan said. "The problem is, you have no authority to take any action against someone. The evaluation committion actually does the evaluation and it has already been done. You can certainly have a special meeting of that committee to evaluate the president."

Groob suggested that perhaps the board should have its own specific attorney. Other members agreed, but it was noted that any funds for such an attorney would possibly have to be generated by the members of the board itself. 

"This is probably an instructive discussion for everyone," Groob said. "Those of you in the community who thought perhaps the board of directors are more responsible for things than we really are, it's probably just instructive. I would suggest we just adjourn. I'm not prepared to proceed against legal counsel without having more information. I think the message is clear and received."

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

Photo: Hughes (L) watches as Groob talks/RCN