State auditors have found that Baltimore’s community college gave unjustified raises to high level managers and paid for maintenance work on equipment that did not exist.
The new audit also concluded that the struggling Baltimore City Community College mismanaged contracts. Auditors referred that matter to the Maryland attorney general for possible criminal investigation.
The audit comes at a time of upheaval for the school. The General Assembly passed legislation this year to revamp its leadership. In September, the school’s president and CEO Gordon F. May announced plans to retire next summer after four years at its helm.
May issued a statement “strongly” disputing some of the findings. He said the school already had discovered some issues and addressed others before the audit was released — including firing the employees responsible for the contracting problems.
“We believe in transparency and integrity,” he said. “That’s why BCCC addressed many of the State audit findings prior to the report’s publication.”
Among their findings, the state legislative auditors documented payments for phantom work, including a paid invoice for more than $21,000 in maintenance on a room and an HVAC system that do not exist.
May said the school “will not stand for any criminal activity.”
The college is trying to rebuild its reputation after years of problems. Enrollment plummeted by 40 percent between 2010 and 2015, and the school has the lowest graduation rate among Maryland’s community colleges. In 2014, the school’s accreditation was briefly in jeopardy.
State legislators say the community college’s leaders will be summoned to Annapolis to explain the audit’s findings.
“We're going to be following this very closely,” state Del. Maggie McIntosh said.
McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Appropriations Committee, has been critical of falling standards at the school. “We’re going to get the leadership of the BCCC in a room and say, ‘What are these items? Are they in fact bogus rooms and bogus so forth?’”
The college paid $3,900 to install four cellphone charging stations that were advertised to “mount securely to any flat surface within minutes,” auditors said, noting that the installation costs seemed wildly out of proportion to the scope of the job.
May said that the auditors “unfairly” criticized the school, and he would be happy to publicly rebut the findings.
“I am always proud to speak on the record to defend BCCC's reputation,” he said.
Auditors said the community college did a poor job keeping track of equipment. It bought 40 new computers only to put them in storage and not use them for years. Other pieces of equipment could not be located at all.
The community college called the computer snafu an isolated incident. It said the computers would be put into use by the Thanksgiving break, and that the school would conduct a physical inventory of its assets to prevent the problem from happening again.
In another series of incidents, workers broke apart $420,000 worth of contracts in a way that allowed employees to circumvent a competitive bidding process that could have saved the school money. The community college agreed to use a different bidding process in the future.
The community college also handed out $129,250 in raises to four senior managers without proper written justification, auditors said. Three of those raises lacked required approval from the Board of Trustees.
In a written response to the audit, community college leaders said those raises did not require approval and that the pay raises were justified. Auditors responded that the school did not produce any records of that justification. The workers who received the raises were not identified in the audit.
In his statement, May said the Board of Trustees is only required to approve his salary, and that the school’s pay raise procedures were followed in the other cases.
The auditors also faulted the school for leaving some IT systems with sensitive information vulnerable to a cyber attack. And they noted sloppy handling of checks at one of its campuses.
Auditors said several of these problems had been pointed out to the college by a tip on its fraud hot-line, but Baltimore City Community College did not refer the allegations to authorities as they are required to do. College officials said they investigated the claims and disputed that they were required to refer them.
Some of the problems noted in the audit, released this week, were first revealed in 2014, auditors said.
The General Assembly acted this year because state lawmakers were concerned about the community college, bringing in former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke to head the school’s revamped board. The legislature also threatened to revoke state funding if the school does not substantially improve its graduation rates.
Although most community colleges in Maryland are financed and run by local governments, Baltimore City Community College is run by the state. Taxpayers spend about $40 million annually on the two-year school, which offers technical degrees and helps students transition into four-year schools.
BCCC representatives noted that the school has been making gains.
Last week, the college announced that 100 percent of its students in four health-related programs passed their licensure exams. It also announced that 48 percent of all graduates in the 2015-2016 school year transferred to a four-year institution.
This fall, the college rolled out new courses, including textbook-free classes.
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has pitched a well-received, $1.5 million plan to give all city public high school graduates free tuition at BCCC.
State auditors said 1,073 students are enrolled full time. More than 3,000 others are enrolled part time.
In an August interview with The Baltimore Sun, Schmoke referred to what he called “the horror stories of the last 20 years” at the community college.
McIntosh, who was a leading force behind the state legislation, noted the audit covers the same period of time that a state-run commission was looking into problems at the school. She said many of those problems already are being addressed.