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CCAC gives president raise amid questions about debt collection practice

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James Knox | Tribune-Review
The Community College of Allegheny County board meets via telephone Wednesday, June 29, 2016, in Byers Hall on the school's North Side campus.
PTRCCACboard2063016
James Knox | Tribune-Review
The CCAC board meets via telephone to an almost empty room Wednesday morning June 29, 2016, in Byers Hall on the school's North Side campus.

Community College of Allegheny County trustees gave President Quintin Bullock a vote of confidence, a $20,000 annual pay raise and a new four-year contract at a special meeting Wednesday.

County auditors, meanwhile, are preparing to investigate student debt collection practices Bullock initiated at the school — practices some faculty members say are harmful. Under the collection system, tuition payments are sought from students who enroll in classes but never attend them.

Bullock did not attend the meeting or return requests for comment. A college spokeswoman said he is out of town.

Board members participated in the 7:30 a.m. meeting by conference call; there was no public comment period.

CCAC trustees defended the college’s collection practices and suggested county Controller Chelsa Wagner’s audit is politically motivated. The board approved Bullock’s four-year contract, which provides a base salary of $260,692 annually, without a dissenting vote.

Wagner — spurred by a CCAC faculty union report that questioned using collection agencies to go after no-show students for tuition — penned a letter June 22 to Bullock announcing an audit of the school’s admissions, enrollment and registration procedures.

Speaking via phone, trustees defended Bullock’s work during a period when CCAC struggled with budget problems, declining enrollment and a credit downgrade.

“As we went through (Bullock’s) annual review process this year, the board was particularly delighted with his dedication to student success, his demonstration of fiscal responsibility, his innovation and for that reason both parties — both Dr. Bullock and the board — were interested in extending that contract,” board Chairwoman Amy Kuntz said.

Bullock started at CCAC in 2014 with a three-year contract and a salary of $239,000. Under his administration, the college has sought tuition payments from students who enroll in classes but never attend, a practice Kuntz defended as common at community colleges.

Spokesmen for Harrisburg Area and Westmoreland County community colleges, however, said their schools delete such students’ names, tuition and fees from their records.

Officials at WCCC refer unpaid student debts to collection agencies, but spokeswoman Anna Marie Palatella said people who never attend classes simply are removed from the school’s accounts payable records.

Fred Thieman, vice chairman of the CCAC board, said he spoke with County Executive Rich Fitzgerald after the Tribune-Review published a story Wednesday about Wagner’s audit. He said Fitzgerald understands it is a tough issue.

“He was supportive,” Thieman said of Fitzgerald. “He was just saying that, you know, the union and Chelsa Wagner are looking for publicity and that he’s totally supportive of the board and Dr. Bullock and he knows it’s a difficult issue.”

Lou Takacs, a spokesman from Wagner’s office, said conducting the audit is in the public interest.

“I don’t see how it’s a political agenda to look further into allegations that have now been aired publicly and are of public concern,” he said.

CCAC board Treasurer and state Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said school officials possessed “strong and valid reasons” for the collections practice, including managing the institution’s expenses. He said college officials work to connect students with financial resources and keep them enrolled before they turn their accounts over to collection agencies.

“Our folks work with the students in an effort to keep them in school,” he said.

Despite those efforts, unpaid student debts increased as enrollment declined from 12,932 in fall 2013 to 11,586 last fall.

It is unclear how much of the increase in unpaid debt can be attributed to the school’s pursuing tuition from no-show students. Records CCAC provided show 2,289 students left the school with $1.6 million in unpaid debt in 2013-14. That number increased to $1.7 million from 1,784 students at the conclusion of the 2015 fall semester.

Faculty members said they are concerned CCAC’s debt collection practice is leaving would-be students with permanent black marks on their credit records and an aversion to the school.

Community colleges — low-cost, two-year public institutions — are entry portals to higher education for millions of Americans.

About 7.33 million Americans attended a community college in 2014, and nearly two-thirds of those people were juggling part-time college with other obligations, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

Unlike four-year schools, which largely rely on recent high school graduates, the average community college student is about 28 years old. The association noted that about 36 percent are first-generation students, 17 percent are single parents, and 12 percent have disabilities.

Debra Erdley and Michael Walton are Tribune-Review staff writers.

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