Accusations Abound at a Community College

One trustee in Johnson County has been censured for sending a private email to state lawmakers about her concerns. The board says she promoted secrecy. She says she was only trying to get answers for constituents.

February 24, 2020
 

The Board of Trustees at Johnson County Community College in Kansas has censured one trustee after she was found to have sent a email to state lawmakers that was rife with inaccuracies.

Angeliina Lawson, who like all trustees of the college was elected to the board directly by voters, sent an email to state lawmakers explaining her concerns around mismanagement of some of the college’s funds as well as works of art stored by the college.

That email eventually made its way to the Kansas Board of Regents and then to JCCC board members, though with Lawson’s name redacted.

A fact-finding investigation found that Lawson sent the email, though she originally refused to respond to questions about the email at board meetings. The fact finder discovered the email contained much false information and some misunderstandings of how the college’s works of art and logistical processes are actually handled. The investigation also found that Lawson’s description of a tour of the art storage facility she attended differed from what others on the tour said occurred.

Lawson has for her part said the censure vote is part of a long-running agenda of revenge by other members of the board stemming from the fact that she was not part of their slate of candidates. Lawson called the investigation a “witch hunt” and said that the lawyer in charge of the fact-finding investigation falsified information.

“I have done nothing wrong. I have a clear conscience,” she said in an interview. “I will keep showing up and I will keep asking questions, because I know I’m doing my job.”

She said that the intense response by the board and community college officials to her questions about the college’s assets and relatively large reserves is suspicious.

“When I dig into more of the budget, suddenly I get a lot of pushback,” she said. “What did I walk into that is causing this much pushback?”

Lawson also said that the Board of Trustees, being publicly elected by voters, operates with too much power and autonomy.

“What in the world is a community college doing storing millions and millions of dollars in art?” she asked. “The questions I’m asking are legitimate."

The total value of all art stored by the college is over $39 million. The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art is located on the Johnson campus. The fact-finding mission concluded that Lawson did not show an understanding of how the art is managed and the policies surrounding its storage.

Lawson’s full email, with annotated initial responses from JCCC staff, can be found on page 49 of the board packet for the December meeting of the trustees.

She was censured by the board for violating the code of conduct, which requires, among other things, trustees to work in harmony and cooperation with the rest of the board.

Greg Musil, chair of the Board of Trustees, said that if Lawson was in fact simply asking for transparency and forwarding along constituents’ concerns, she should have done that in a public forum.

“Instead, she chose to send a secret e-mail to state legislators making factually false allegations, naming individual college employees, and even alleging misconduct at other Kansas community colleges,” he said via email. “Her conduct promoted secrecy, not the transparency practiced by or sought by the college.”

"Her intent, from the start and as she stated in her 'defense,' was to ensure that no one knew about her inflammatory and materially inaccurate e-mail -- not the public, her fellow board members, or faculty, staff or students," he said.

Musil said good governance, trusting relationships and a focus on students were all diminished by Lawson’s secret email. "If the board had ignored these violations, the Code of Conduct would simply have been a piece of paper, with no credibility."

Lawson said that in her time on the board since 2017, her concerns have repeatedly been mocked or dismissed, and so she had no faith in the board to investigate.

"If an elected official cannot seek the advice of another elected official, where do I go?" she said. "The constituents have a right to get their questions answered."

John Lombardi, former president of the University of Florida and the Louisiana State University system, and author of the book How Universities Work, said that typically when trustees have concerns about mismanagement, they should first speak to the chair of the board, and then the two together should speak with the president or chancellor of the college.

If the executive can’t resolve the issue, he said, it may be that the board needs to take up the issue in executive session.

“When boards do not resolve these issues in executive session, but individual board members seek out alternative forums in the public to attack the institutional management or each other,” he said via email, “it may well indicate mismanagement of the board's responsibilities.”

He said that board members should understand that their role is not to manage a university directly, but to hire and fire a president.

Two local news publications, The Kansas City Star and The Shawnee Mission Post, both reported that several residents spoke up in support of Lawson at the meeting where she was censured, saying she was asking difficult questions and won her election by a large margin.

A spokesperson for the community college said that the events were an “unfortunate situation,” but one that could have been solved fairly easily by Lawson. The spokesperson said the administration is looking forward to getting back to focusing on the mission of the college and student success.

Henry Stoever, president and CEO of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, said that a board should work collectively with a president to resolve questions.

“Effective board governance doesn’t happen if all members don’t have the necessary information to act on critical issues,” he said via email.

He said that while he was not aware of every detail of the JCCC case, boards do have the responsibility to police themselves.

“All members, whether they be elected, appointed, selected, ex-officio, or otherwise,” he said, “should understand their duties and how these responsibilities translate into effective board governance.”

Lombardi said that censure by a board is often a mistake and does not resolve the problem.

“Censure is a political act and indicates a dysfunctional board that has members who do not want to work together and cannot resolve their issues within normal board procedures,” he said via email. “Once you reach the point of censure, you will have more trouble, not less.”

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