County colleges inquiry launched Higher education chief says trustees are not advocates for system


Maryland's higher education secretary, concerned about mounting criticism of the board that oversees Baltimore County's community colleges and plummeting morale on the three campuses, is launching an inquiry into the state's largest two-year college system.

"The trustees in Baltimore County are not advocates for the colleges," Patricia S. Florestano said yesterday, in the aftermath of the firing of the colleges' chancellor. "Many members have been there too long, and it appears time for a change."

Even as others described the administrative squabbling as a politically motivated fight between east- and west-county state senators, Florestano said that the situation was "sad and discouraging, one the governor is watching closely."

She added: "We plan to put together a team for an inquiry. We need to check the standards at the schools because throughout all this conflict the most important ingredient in our mission is being missed -- the students and the quality of education."

Florestano's comments came after a whirlwind week in which controversial chancellor Daniel J. LaVista, 52, was fired and trustees were summoned to brief county legislators on reports of board in-fighting and ineffectiveness.

LaVista, hired in September 1995 to guide the schools into an efficient, unified system, had angered the board by siding with faculty members on contentious issues such as tenure. And county officials, impatient for a detailed money-saving plan and upset by what some saw as his imperial style, cut $2.3 million from the system budget last spring.

But almost as soon as LaVista was fired Monday night, scrutiny shifted to the actions of the 11-member board, whose members are chosen by state senators and confirmed by the governor.

Karen Bontrager, a nursing student at Catonsville, said the administrative battles have damaged student morale.

"Whether it was the chancellor or board members, all they talked about were statistics, like they're not dealing with people," said the Lansdowne resident. "To them, education is a business, but, to me, it breaks down the integrity of education. It's supposed to be lifting us up to be more knowledgeable, future leaders.

"The view of the students has been missing from all this fighting, which looks like, to me and my friends, nothing but a power pull."

While denying any power struggle, Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Democrat who represents Owings Mills and Pikesville, has introduced a bill that would eliminate the countywide board and create a board for each campus. The measure also calls for one finance committee accountable to the state and county, which provide nearly two-thirds of the system's $76 million annual budget.

Hollinger's board appointee, Elayne Hettleman, was not consulted by the board leadership -- the majority of whom live on the county's east side -- about LaVista's ouster. Neither was trustee Henry H. Stansbury.

Hettleman and Stansbury are influential members of the Catonsville college's foundation and were staunch supporters of the former chancellor.

Some critics say Hollinger is trying to wrest control of the colleges -- which serve about 70,000 students -- from the influence of Essex Democrat Michael J. Collins, the county's Senate delegation chairman, and from the region where the Essex and Dundalk colleges opened more than three decades ago.

Ronald G. Abe, past board chairman and an architect of the LaVista firing, is the campaign treasurer for Collins. Another trustee, John R. Schneider, is on the staff of Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, who is from the east side and is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and trustee G. Carl Klausmeier is the brother-in-law of Del. Katherine Klausmeier, a Perry Hall Democrat.

Political and geographical concerns aside, Florestano said the return to independent campuses and separate boards "is not the efficient way to go."

She said that she has received hundreds of telephone calls and faxes from college faculty members and administrators who are "scared to death."

"People don't have faith in the board. The board sees themselves as regulators and not advocates. I was also struck by how many of them did not really know how an institution functions," she said.

"Most counties view their community colleges as assets and support them. But the board in Baltimore County doesn't seem to share that view. They even seemed angry that they had to meet with me," she said.

The secretary, who met with the board for nearly two hours, said that trustees have "no sympathy with shared governance" -- giving the faculty a role in guiding the colleges.

Faculty leaders have called for the board to resign.

After the board's briefing to the Senate delegation Thursday, Bromwell said that the "board has to change but three boards won't happen. To go in the opposite direction just doesn't make sense. Maybe there should be criteria [for choosing members], maybe expand the board to include faculty and students."

Pub Date: 1/18/97

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