Balto. Co. colleges: a tale of 2 visions System's trustees, chancellor clash on reform's course


Rosemary Klein, a veteran English professor at Dundalk Community College, vividly recalls her initial meeting in September 1995 with Daniel J. LaVista, hired to lead the reorganization of Baltimore County's troubled two-year colleges.

"He struck me as being the consummate administrator, smooth," Klein said. "He was Stuart Berger without gravy stains on his tie."

But like Berger -- the abrasive Baltimore County schools superintendent and agent of change fired last year with a $300,000 buyout -- the engaging LaVista has found himself on the hot seat.

Tomorrow night, in executive session, the community college system's embattled board of trustees will evaluate LaVista's performance -- a prelude to his possible removal after 18 months as chancellor of the 70,000-student system, the state's largest, with a $76 million annual budget.

Publicly, some board members offer minimal support for LaVista. Privately, trustees tell The Sun that LaVista will be gone by June -- they hope he will resign gracefully. One already is talking about searching for an interim chancellor.

Board members are weary, they say, of colliding with their chancellor over plans to streamline the system and hold the 1,200-member faculty more accountable.

"It has turned out that the board's vision and Dan's vision are not the same," said a board member who asked not to be identified. "There isn't a harder working guy, but you just can't go onto the campuses and speak against board policy. I think the board and Dan have to part ways."

LaVista, out of town for the holiday, would not comment on the matter last week.

Once he was viewed as the captain who would bring new life to a sagging system where students and faculty have complained of outdated technology, aging facilities and ill-prepared high school graduates needing remedial work in reading and math.

Now he is seen by critics as an empire builder and slow to carry out his charge by the board. But perhaps most important, LaVista has further driven a wedge between himself and the trustees by privately and, in some cases, publicly supporting the faculty.

The system's administration is in turmoil. Even as the 10-member board, which is appointed by the governor, wrestles with LaVista's future, faculty members are demanding the board's resignation, angry about the panel's calls to abolish tenure for new faculty and to tighten rules on sabbaticals and pay for summer teaching.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has asked his secretary of higher education, Patricia S. Florestano, to intercede in a situation she terms "overheated."

Such a conflict involving faculty, trustees and chancellor is unique among the nation's community colleges, said James F. McKenney, an official with the American Association of Community Colleges.

"There is no groundswell of opinion on boards regarding tenure or other issues the likes of which are impacting Baltimore County, where there seems to be enough blame to go around," McKenney said.

Baltimore County's three schools are among 18 two-year institutions in Maryland and 1,100 in the nation.

LaVista, 52, was hired as chancellor in September 1995 after a national search, with the assignment of uniting the three community college campuses at Dundalk, Essex and Catonsville.

LaVista, who is bright and personable, was told to slash duplicated programs, reorganize administrative services and address such contentious issues as tenure and sabbaticals.

When the system's three-year reorganization is complete, trustees say, a savings of $5 million will be directed into classrooms, technology and new programs.

But the trustees, stung by dwindling enrollment and a decline in public financial support, have seen the County Council cut $2.3 million from the system's budget because council members view LaVista's reorganization plan as too vague and slow.

While tuition was raised $6 a credit last year -- at a time when many students are from poor and working-class families -- public officials were critical of LaVista's $130,000 annual contract and numerous perks.

Before coming to Towson, La- Vista enjoyed wide latitude and popularity with an elected board as president of the College of Lake County's two campuses near Chicago. According to an internal document obtained by The Sun, LaVista's board there did not "micromanage him."

The same relationship has not existed in Baltimore County. One trustee said LaVista dictated what he wanted in his last job; here, the board has set policy, which the trustee said LaVista has not always followed. The quick hiring of his former associates -- including Dundalk Community College President Felix T. Haynes, who served with LaVista on the Illinois community college system's president's council -- along with additions to the top administration and a costly nationwide search for a college publicist were among the LaVista decisions that drew fire from public officials.

Klein, who holds two master's degrees and started her teaching career in an Anne Arundel County middle school, said LaVista "came in letting external things happen around him. He didn't pay attention to external things."

But to Klein, a tenured member of the faculty for nearly 20 years, LaVista is not the primary problem -- despite major errors in judgment, such as a plan -- which LaVista later apologized for and canceled -- to line up senior administrators at midnight last winter to apply for a buyout. Instead, she and fellow professors believe the board is incompetent.

"LaVista did engage the faculty and tried to get us involved in the process of the reorganization," Klein said. "The faculty just became enraged as the reorganization was failing all around us and LaVista. I wound up feeling frustrated for him."

In spite of the turmoil, Klein said she will fight for the community college concept -- a gateway for middle- and lower-income students into four-year institutions.

"I could have taught at four-year schools, but I find the need particularly strong to teach where I teach," she said.

Timothy M. Kotroco, a trustee for nearly four years, said the reorganization is an attempt to reverse 30 years in which each institution operated independently and built and guarded its own budgets, staffs and programs. Virtually everyone in the system, faculty members included, believed changes were needed.

"Nobody likes to work hastily in matters like this, but taxpayers and officials want things streamlined, and the board has to do it," said Kotroco, once a star baseball pitcher at Essex Community College, now a lawyer who is deputy county zoning commissioner.

Regarding tenure, for instance, "half of the community colleges in the state have abolished tenure without suffering negatively," Kotroco said.

And while he and other trustees see value in sabbaticals related to educational advancement, he said: "We don't want taxpayers footing the bill of a senior professor driving across the country with her children on a so-called sabbatical.

"And we feel summer school teaching fees should be applied equitably across the board, and professors should spend more time in the classrooms, with the students."

Despite their differences, Kotroco finds common ground with Klein on the importance of the two-year schools.

"Without Essex, my family could not have afforded college, then law school," he said. "Education is why we do it, and we have to do it better. Let's hope all of this controversy makes everybody wiser."

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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