Making deals normal at college
Before I tell you what I learned from speaking with Sierra College board Trustee Aaron Klein last week, you need to understand a little history. There is a lot more than meets the eye on this issue of renegade trustees firing poor innocent college presidents.
For those just catching up, the seven-member Sierra College board changed its complexion last November with the election of two new trustees – Klein and Scott Leslie. Just weeks into his term, Klein called for college President Kevin Ramirez to resign, pretty much saying, among other things, that Ramirez was a bad money manager. After days of back-room negotiations, Ramirez agreed to resign and will be paid more than $240,000 in salary and thousands more in other benefits over the next several months. Part of the closed-door settlement stipulated that nobody say anything bad about anybody else, which is why Klein really couldn’t tell me anything bad about Ramirez.
I just love secret agreements involving public money and trust, don’t you?
Next thing we know, faculty members are calling for Klein’s head, suggesting that he and Leslie and perhaps one or two other trustees are part of the “right-wing conspiracy,” which Republicans are frequently being accused of participating in. Why else would those mean and nasty conspirators ask such a wonderful and kind and talented college president to leave?
What a difference five years make.
Five years ago, many of those same faculty members were also demanding that Ramirez resign. “We’re not happy with the president, and we’re not happy with the running of the college,” said Ralph Eavenson, then-president of the Sierra College Faculty Association, in the May/June 2000 association newsletter. That vote of “no confidence” in the former president came after another series of back-room deals, where a former college dean was paid some $576,000 to drop her wrongful termination lawsuit against Ramirez, the board and the college.
That back-room deal caused quite a stir in Placer County, where the grand jury wanted to know why the terms and conditions of such a large payout were not made public. The grand jury charged that the college conspired to keep the payment secret from the public.
According to a January 2000 grand jury report on that deal, Debra Ann Furtado was employed by Sierra College as an assistant dean of the library in July 1991 and then as a faculty librarian. In February 1995, the board decided not to renew Furtado’s assistant dean contract and reassigned her to a first-year, nontenured probationary faculty librarian position.
That began a series of motions filed by Furtado claiming she was not being treated fairly and that the actions were based on the fact that she blew the whistle on Ramirez and the board. It seems Furtado found out about what she said was a secret effort to slip some executive offices into a new library building that was supposed to be used solely for educational, not administrative, purposes.
She started causing a few waves about that and the next thing she knew, her position was eliminated.
If she was wrong, or if her lawsuit against the college was simply a “nuisance suit,” as the college suggested, why was Furtado paid $576,000 to go away? Good question. It turns out the settlement was disguised to make the amount look much smaller. “The California Insurance Company agreed to pay Furtado the amount of one dollar and additional valuable consideration,” it read.
Turns out that the “additional valuable consideration” amounted to another $575,999. The grand jury discovered that the Furtado lawsuit was actually settled for a $300,000 cash payment and a $250,000 annuity payable to Furtado over a five-year period at the rate of $55,347.62 per year.
So it seems that with the Ramirez “retirement” settlement, the college board is simply keeping up its policy of secret settlements, only this time instead of agreeing not to disclose dollars, trustees have chosen to agree to shut up, or not tell their shareholders (taxpayers) why Ramirez is gone.
Which brings us to Trustee Aaron Klein. I found him to be very bright and pretty damned straightforward for someone who has been under pressure for pressuring Ramirez to leave.
Is he a Republican? Yep. He sure is (as are a majority of Placer County’s registered voters). In fact, Klein was treasurer of the Placer County Republican Central Committee. But I don’t recall anyone ever expressing disgust or outrage by having a Democrat or liberal on the college board. Klein replaced Dave Parker, who served on the board for 20 years. If you know Dave, you know he’s Klein’s alter ego.
Klein said he decided to run for office when he saw that administrators were giving themselves large pay raises while cutting classes. And, by the way, one of Klein’s first decisions on the board earlier this year was to turn down a proposal to pay college trustees more money.
“I didn’t get elected to decide if our college president is a good Republican or not but to decide if he was a good president or not,” Klein told me. “Your political party plays a role in who you are and what you believe in, but has nothing to do with the job you do.”
Klein’s “hidden agenda”? He says he’d like to reform the budget process and “bring more transparency to the finances.” He believes the board needs to get more involved in those finances and not simply serve as a rubber stamp for the administration.
He also thinks Dr. Morgan Lynn (a Democrat, by the way), will make a wonderful president for Sierra College.
And with Tina Ludutsky-Taylor running the Grass Valley campus, which is set for expansion, Sierra College is in pretty good shape, given the recent shakeup. In the end, the 20,000 or so students who attend Sierra College don’t really care who the president is or who serves on the board, so long as they have classes available and quality instructors to teach them. The future for Sierra College remains bright.
Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears on Tuesdays. Contact him at 477-4299, firstname.lastname@example.org, or 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.
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