By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—The State’s Community College system has once again invited controversy, with the push to combine colleges under the guidance of the Alabama Community College Board of Trustees, formed in 2015.
As John Archibald pointed out recently, sex isn’t the only scandal happening in Alabama.
Most recently, the merger of the successful Southern Union State Community College with two failing colleges (Central Alabama Community College, and Chattahootchie Valley Community College) has raised concerns, not only in the communities where the colleges are located, but with some in the State Legislature.
Each school has had interim presidents for years, until recently, when Dr. Susan L. Burrow, CACC president, was tapped to lead the proposed merger.
Burrow reportedly has a close relationship with Roger Bates, of the law firm of Hand Arendall and Jimmy Baker. Baker is the former assistant superintendent of education, deputy superintendent of education, and finance director for the State of Alabama under Fob James. In 2015, Bates and Baker were listed with the Secretary of State, as lobbyists for the Alabama two-year college system, but have not registered in 2016.
For over a decade, The State Board of Education has prohibited, “any institution under its authority, direction, and control from paying with State funds for the services of a lobbyist on a contract or consulting basis,” according to its own Board policies. This prohibition has included, the Alabama two-year college system, which, until recently, was under the direct control of the State Board of Education.
State records show that since 2014, the two-year college system has held a professional services contract with the law firm, Hand Arendall, which has been paid over half a million dollars since 2014.
“This is beyond the level of Roy Johnson,” said a confidential source with close ties the community college system, referring to a former College Chancellor who pled guilty to using his position for personal gain, and is now serving six years in prison. “These people are just being a lot smarter. Roy was blatant. These people are using a law firm to channel everything through, so it can’t be questioned.”
It is believed that consolidation is more about who gets paid and who gains power, than what is good for the colleges.
“If you can pull all that power and money under one umbrella, look at what kind of power and control you have in those communities,” said a former college official speaking on background. “Jimmy Baker is the de facto chancellor and [Chancellor] Heinrich, has no clue and neither does the Governor.”
Hundreds of thousands of taxpayer funds are being spent on “research” to support the mergers, with very little accountability, according to several lawmakers. Also serious question have been raised about Burrow’s leadership at CACC.
The most recent audit by the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts, found numerous accounting errors at CACC. There appear to be substantial errors in reconciliation of accounts, including accounts receivable, cash balances and cash receipts, as compared to the general ledger and to deposits. The matter has been referred to local District Attorneys for investigation, according to a State official.
The relationship between Susan Burrow and Rebekah Caldwell Mason, Governor Robert Bentley’s former senior advisor and sexting partner, is also being questioned.
Both attended Haleyville High School. Susan Little: Class of 1980. Rebekah Caldwell: Class of 1989. Haleyville reported a population in 2010 of 4,163 people.
After Rebekah finished high school, she attended Northwest State Community College, where Susan Burrow was an instructor.
Some lawmakers have expressed grave concerns about the mergers, as well as the influence lawyers, lobbyists and college cronies can have.