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Serious questions remain over ACHE funding methodology for colleges and universities

Bill and Susan Britt

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Strident dissension erupted during the 2019 Legislative Session when it was discovered that a new methodology adopted by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE) led to Auburn University being short-changed in the budgeting process.

ACHE Executive Director Dr. Jim Purcell who holds a doctorate from the University of Alabama tried to explain away why Auburn University received a significantly reduced percentage of state funding, but what he did not reveal were his close ties to the company who had recommended the cuts or allegations of misdeeds against the organization.

What is also seemingly apparent is the use of questionable data comparisons between nationwide institutions and Alabama’s schools of higher learning to determine funding allocations for the state’s colleges and universities in fiscal year 2020.

Purcell Hires NCHEMS

Colorado-based vendor, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) was hired by Purcell to conduct statistical peer equity adjustments for each public institution, which dramatically lowered Auburn’s percentage of state funding for fiscal year 2020.

In other words, ACHE hired NCHEMS to compare Alabama’s universities and colleges to like institutions around the nation and on those findings recommend a budget to the Legislature. But a review of the process appears to show inequities in the methodology.

The review by NCHEMS resulted in Auburn receiving an increase of five percent, while the University of Alabama’s was more than 7.5 percent and Athens State University received the most significant increase at more than 11 percent.

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The funding disparity led to rare public feuding between lawmakers, education leaders and others.

While the budget issue was eventually resolved, lingering questions about the process remain.

Records going back to 2003, suggest this was the first time ACHE had used this type of peer review formulation to determine funding recommendations for state colleges and universities.

Purcell’s Ties to NCHEMS

Purcell was named Alabama’s State Higher Education Executive Officer in April 2017, previously having served in similar capacities in Rhode Island, Louisiana and Arkansas.

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During his tenure at these agencies, Purcell contracted NCHEMS, the same group who performed Alabama’s peer equity review for various projects.

NCHEMS is a vendor Purcell repeatedly hired as he moved from state to state holding jobs in higher education.

Public records show Purcell accepted money from groups with close ties to NCHEMS. These financial ties can be seen in Purcell’s state disclosure forms.

While serving in higher education roles in the states of Arkansas and Louisiana, Purcell received money from NCHEMS’ associates.

NCHEMS is located at 3035 Center Green Drive, Plaza 2 in Boulder, Colorado. Also, in the same building, is the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) that states on its website, “WICHE played a leading role in the creation of NCHEMS.” A third group, the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) is also housed in the same location.

In 2008, NCHEMS produced a study entitled “Adult Learning in Focus.” Purcell is listed as an advisor to the study.

In 2010, while working as the State Higher Education Executive Officer with the Louisiana Board of Regents, and as the leader of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, Purcell reported income from WICHE, the group that helped create NCHEMS.

In 2012, while working in Louisiana, Purcell reported travel compensation from SHEEO.

Creating Fake Information in Nevada

In 2016, it was revealed that NCHEMS conspired with the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) and its Chancellor, Dan Klaich, to prepare a fake document designed to mislead members of the Nevada Legislature.

According to an investigative report by The Nevada Review-Journal, “Nevada System of Higher Education officials actively worked to undermine the Legislature’s effort to overhaul college and university funding models…going so far as to present a false document to lawmakers and joking about it afterward.”

Emails show Nevada higher ed agency misled Legislature on funding study

During the episode, NCHEMS allowed NSHE to write a memo under the NCHEMS letterhead. As the Review-Journal wrote, “The memo was styled as the think tank’s response to questions raised by the committee and it directed Klaich to share the response with the committee.” Emails obtained by the Review-Journal shows that NCHEMS provided the stationary, and Klaich and NSHE filled in the blanks.

Klaich resigned after it was revealed he had presented a memo to the Nevada Legislature which was written by NSHE staff and put on NCHEMS letterhead – with the blessing of both Klaich and NCHEMS President Dennis Jones. Further, the Review-Journal printed email excerpts that showed NCHEMS and Klaich had colluded in misleading the Legislature.

Committee members were told that NCHEMS was an impartial consultant, when in fact the NSHE was working hand-in-glove with NCHEMS to create biased information for the Legislature jointly.

Despite his previous ties to NCHEMS and the allegations in Nevada, Purcell brought NCHEMS to Alabama.

Questions Emerges in Arkansas

Purcell led the Arkansas Department of Higher Education from December 2007, to February 2011. Numerous media reports note that the Department of Higher Education used NCHEMS during Purcell’s tenure.

A 2011 Arkansas Times story notes that Purcell paid NCHEMS $15,000 for a report for the state and the University of Arkansas chancellor criticized it.

G. David Gearhart, chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, as reported by the Times said, “the study looks like a put-up job, conclusions favored by DHE arrived at in advance.” Gearhart, “also said the consultants used incorrect data, making UAF look worse in comparison with similar research institutions in other states in producing graduates. And he told the Times that both the consultants and the director of DHE, Jim Purcell, had made statements in connection with the study that were unconscionably untrue.”

Peer Review Shows Inequities

NCHEMS’ higher education funding formula and use of peer groups created markedly different results in 2019, for some schools – results that differed dramatically from the funding formulas previously used in Alabama for decades.

The NCHEMS peer groups were meant to assess whether a specific university was being funded on a level that is competitive and comparable to similar publicly-funded universities across the country.

For each Alabama institution, NCHEMS provided a set of 10-15 peer universities to ACHE. No Alabama university was in another’s peer group. If a specific state institution was not shown to be funded to at least 90 percent of the average of its relative peer group, ACHE would recommend an additional funding adjustment on top of the standard adjustment recommended for all universities in the state.

In an analysis of the reports, some glaring inconsistencies in peer selection criteria stand out. The reports were based upon the performance of a given university/college in comparison to a group of nationwide peers selected by NCHEMS. Performances were averaged among the peers and measured back to the selected Alabama university/college. In an analysis of tuitions and fees, state and local appropriations and non-operating grants, and total number of students, some of the averages appear to be skewed by including other peers that are far superior or inferior to the Alabama institution.

Examples of comparisons

A comparison of Athens State and Valley City State University in North Dakota, shows appropriations are within 5 percent, however, Athens tuition receipts are 95 percent higher than Valley, and it has 53 percent more students.

When Alabama A&M is compared to North Carolina A&T University, A&T’s tuition budget is 1.29 percent higher, its state appropriations are 2.5 percent higher, but it has almost twice as many students.

In the case of Auburn University, in comparison to Colorado State University—Ft. Collins, the tuitions and students are comparable, however, state and local appropriations represent less than one percent of Auburn’s appropriations.

Looking at Alabama State University and Southern Connecticut State University, Connecticut’s tuitions, appropriations and total students exceed ASU by almost double in all three categories.

Colorado School of Mines appears in comparison to the University of Alabama—Huntsville. While the headcount is close, Colorado’s tuitions are nearly double UAH while their state and local appropriations only represent 6.45 percent of what UAH receives.

Athens State, Jacksonville State and Troy University peers included university/colleges that receive zero state and local funding, dramatically affecting the average.

While most reports appear to be using different universities/colleges in each analysis, Texas International A&M University is used as a peer in the three reports: Auburn University—Montgomery, Jacksonville State University and the University of North Alabama. The financial line items for all three are identical.

This pattern continues throughout the reports:

Delta State University appears as a peer in both the University of Montevallo and Auburn University—Montgomery.

Southern Mississippi is on both University of Alabama and University of Alabama—Huntsville report.

Georgia College and State University are on the University of North Alabama, Jacksonville State University and Alabama State University comparison.

Southern Oregon appears on Montvallo  and University of West Alabama Reports.

More than ten other university/colleges were used for the same sort of baseline in other comparisons.

Further information on all university/college reports and summaries can be found at this link.

In Conclusion

Due to the proprietary nature of NCHEMS process, the methodology used to determine these peer groups is publicly unknowable. Ultimately, the methodology for choosing these peer groups – which determines the funding recommendation by ACHE to the Legislature – is a secret, to those who have a vested interest in the data’s accuracy.

A basic statistical analysis of the variation in state appropriation levels within specific peer groups for each university shows apparent inequity when comparing the groups to each other.

A set of peer groups that are fair and equitable should have reasonably similar statistical properties — this is not the case for the peer groups provided by NCHEMS.

Most of the universities’ peer groups have very similar levels of variation in state funding, but a few do stand out from the group. In short, how NCHEMS selected their peer groups gave a significant advantage to some universities. Other universities received no adjustment related to the NCHEMS peer groups.

Anomalies in the statistical peer equity adjustments overseen by NCHEMS led to a heated controversy during the 2019 Legislative Session. Lawmakers, as well as administrators, have expressed a desire to avoid problems going forward.

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Report: Alabama ranks 47th in the nation in child well-being

The state’s poor ranking is also a drop from Alabama’s ranking last year of 44th in the nation.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama ranked 47th in the nation in child well-being, according to this year’s Alabama Kids Count Data Book, published by VOICES for Alabama’s Children , and the poor ranking comes before the impacts of COVID-19. 

The state’s poor ranking is also a drop from Alabama’s ranking last year of 44th in the nation. Alabama improved or remained the same in 14 of 16 categories studied in the report, but the improvements were outpaced by other states. 

“We have actually not really gotten worse, but we’re not improving as fast as other states,” said Stephen Woerner, executive director of VOICES for Alabama’s Children, a Montgomery children’s advocacy nonprofit that helps compile the report. 

Woener, speaking to APR on Monday, said that the data collected for the report was collected before the COVID-19 pandemic, and it may be two years before enough data is compiled to determine the impact the pandemic has had on Alabama’s children. This year’s Kids Count book will be a critical benchmark used to measure those impacts, he said. 

“I don’t think there’s a single indicator in this book, beyond the demographics, that is not going to be impacted. Whether it’s food security, or infant mortality. Just across the board. Across all 70 indicators. All of them are going to see impacts,” Woener said. 

He’s especially paying attention to COVID-19’s impact on education in the state, Woerner said. 

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“With remote learning and kids being out of school, schools closing down and that being so sporadic and community specific, we’re going to see impacts that are significant and not even across the board,” Woerner said. 

Woerner also stressed that the pandemic hasn’t brought about new problems, but only worsened existing inequities and challenges facing children and their families statewide. 

“A good way to look at that is the childcare system,” Woerner said. “Access to affordable, high quality, safe childcare. That system was already incredibly fragile to begin with, and COVID has decimated it.” 

The state got down as low as 10 percent of child care centers open in April, and has increased to 85 percent open in mid-October, but of those open, the centers are averaging 66 percent capacity, Woerner said. 

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“We’ve been told by the national level that as many as 40 percent of child care providers may be out of business by the end of the year, if we don’t do a significant influx of federal funds to help support it,” Woerner said. 

Alabama ranked 45th in economic well being, but improved slightly from 2010 to 2018, dropping from 28 percent of children living in poverty to 24 percent during that timeframe. 

The state is seeing improvements in third grade literacy and Alabama’s pre-K program continues to expand, Woerner said. 

“We’ve seen really good places where our investments have paid off, but we’re going to have to continue to prioritize them,” Woerner said. 

The report did find racial disparities in education, however. During the 2018-2019 school year. Black students were suspended at a rate of 19 percent, which was twice as high as all other races, at a rate of 9.9 percent or less.

“We’ve got to continue to highlight those disparities and recognize that we can’t afford to fail any of our kids, and our kids are not inherently failures,” Woerner said.

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Alabama Education Association, Board of Medical Examiners meet over excuses to break COVID-19 quarantines

Prior to the meeting, the AEA on Nov. 5 threatened legal action against the board over the matter. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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Officials with the Alabama Education Association and the Alabama State Board of Medical Examiners met on Thursday to discuss a concern the association has with doctors who write excuses to allow students to return to school before their mandated COVID-19 quarantine periods expire.

At the meeting between Theron Stokes, associate executive director of the Alabama Education Association, and William Perkins, executive director of the Alabama State Board of Medical Examiners, Stokes learned that the board wasn’t aware of the problem, the AEA said in a press release. 

“Both groups agreed to set up a meeting with educational and medical organizations on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in Alabama,” the AEA said in the release. “A meeting should be held before the end of the year and will allow the AEA and the Board of Medical Examiners, as well as other educational and medical organizations, to review existing guidelines issued by the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and ensure conformity in following those guidelines.” 

In a letter to Perkins on Thursday, Stokes wrote that it was AEA’s understanding that the board was aware of the problem, but he wrote that during their meeting he became aware that neither the board nor Perkins was aware of the problem. 

“It was not the intent of AEA to cause any unnecessary problems for you, the doctors you represent, or your organization regarding this matter,” Stokes wrote. 

Prior to the meeting, the AEA on Nov. 5 threatened legal action against the board over the matter. 

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“It is our firm belief that there exists no medical scenario under which these students could be written out of quarantine and that to do so is violative of ADPH and CDC quarantine recommendations,” Stokes wrote in the Nov. 5 letter. 

Stokes in his recent letter notes that both agreed in the meeting to bring together representatives of the other organizations to come up with a uniform procedure for following state and federal guidelines. 

“I agree with your plan to conduct this meeting and finalize our goals before the holidays,” Stokes wrote.

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Governor announces more than $298 million for K-12, college projects

$298 million has been awarded to 20 Public School and College Authority projects statewide. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday announced more than $298 million has been awarded to 20 Public School and College Authority projects statewide. 

“The Public School and College Authority was established with the intent on tackling long-standing school infrastructure projects or educational upgrades that have been delayed due to limited funding,” Ivey said in a statement. “I’m pleased to announce these 20 projects with the people of Alabama in full transparency. The announcement today marks a significant investment in the future of this state. I’m grateful to the Alabama Legislature for the enabling legislation which established the PSCA and the astute work of State Finance Director Kelly Butler for positioning the bond sale in the best way possible.”

The PSCA is comprised of Ivey, State Finance Director Kelly Butler and Alabama Superintendent of Education Eric Mackey.

“I am thrilled that the PSCA is able to provide these funds to worthwhile projects throughout the state,” Butler said in a statement. “I am grateful to the legislature for authorizing the sale and to Governor Ivey for her leadership in supporting this transaction. The successful sale is the result of outstanding work by the financing team, and I thank them for all of their efforts.”

The state Legislature in 2019, authorized the PSCA to sell up to $1.25 billion in bonds and allocated money to every city and county K-12 school system and to higher education institutions, with 73 percent of the funds going to K-12 schools and 27 percent going to two-and four-year colleges.

Because of low interest rates, the bond sale resulted in the PSCA receiving over $300 million in premium revenues, according to a press release from Ivey’s office. The true interest cost of the bonds is two percent over the 20-year repayment period.

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The PSCA projects funded from the premium revenue and announced today are:

  • University of Alabama Huntsville: Huntsville Regional Lab and Morgue — 11,000,000
  • HudsonAlpha: Expansion of Biotech Campus/designate Alabama the Discovery Life Sciences Global Headquarters — 15,000,000
  • Auburn University: New STEM & Agricultural Sciences Complex — 50,000,000
  • University of Alabama at Birmingham: Genomic Medical & Data Sciences Building — 50,000,000
  • Troy University: Center for Materials and Manufacturing — 9,450,000
  • Alabama Center for Arts: Dorm — 15,000,000
  • University of South Alabama: New Medical School Building — 50,000,000
  • University of North Alabama: Computer Science & Mathematics Building — 15,000,000
  • Alabama School of Deaf and Blind: North Alabama Campus — 28,519,992
  • Alabama Aviation College: Phase 2 renovations of Barnett Building and upgrade the hanger floor — 500,000
  • Lauderdale County: Workforce Development Center — 8,000,000
  • Alabama Shakespeare Festival: Renovations and Repairs — 5,000,000
  • Alabama School of Math & Science: Science Research Center — 6,000,000; Outdoor Classrooms — 235,000
  • AIDT: Toyota/Mazda — 8,000,000
  • Jacksonville State University: Randy Owen Performance Center — 15,000,000
  • The American Village: Central Independence Hall and Tower Classrooms and Experiences — 5,000,000
  • Alabama A&M University: Library Roofing — 907,500; Wilson Hall, Drake Hall, Carnegie Hall wood restoration project — 605,000
  • University of Montevallo: Residence Halls HVAC/Roof Repair — 1,000,000
  • University of West Alabama: Brock Hall 2nd Floor Renovation — 2,600,000
  • Alabama State University: Friendship Manor — 1,500,000

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Many Alabama schools return to remote learning before Thanksgiving

Alabama school districts reported 1,592 positive cases last week, up 536 cases from the previous week.

John H. Glenn

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Despite the state saying there are no plans for a statewide move to remote learning, numerous local systems across the state have begun transitioning to remote learning after a large number of COVID-19 cases were reported in school systems across the state last week. 

Alabama school districts reported 1,592 positive cases last week, up 536 cases from the previous week, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) K-12 COVID dashboard.

“We’ve heard about rumors suggesting there would be a statewide move to remote learning after Thanksgiving. Absolutely not true,” ALSDE spokesperson Michael Sibley said. “There have been no plans or discussion concerning any form of statewide shutdown. Local systems, of course, have the autonomy to make their own schedule and react to their individual circumstances. But no statewide plans for this.”

As early as Nov. 9, multiple city and county school systems in Alabama began announcing transitions from in-person to remote learning. Tuscumbia, Oneonta and Alexander City Schools all by Nov. 13 had begun or fully transitioned to remote learning. 

“Over the past three days, Alexander City Schools has seen a surge in positive cases,” Alexander City Schools Superintendent Dr. Keith Lankford said in a statement to The Outlook. “The health and safety of our students, teachers, staff and community are most important to us. After consulting with the Alabama State Department of Education lead nurse and reviewing our data related to COVID-19, we have decided that it is necessary to move all schools to remote learning effective Nov. 16.”

Alexander City Schools have reported 32 positive cases among students and teachers, with 259 students and faculty currently in quarantine.

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East Limestone Middle School and High School said they would also transition to remote learning due to understaffing problems, WAFF 48 reported. Close to 300 students have been quarantined in those schools, with 20 positive cases among teachers and students.

Huntsville’s Goldsmith Schiffman Elementary, Ridgecrest Elementary, Columbia High and Huntsville High followed Friday morning, saying in a press release those schools would transition to remote learning until Nov. 30.

“The district’s Preventative Measures Team worked collaboratively with each school’s leadership team to assess several factors before making the decision to transition to remote learning.” Huntsville City Schools’ press release reads. “Instruction will occur as it did during the remote learning period at the beginning of the school year.”

Birmingham’s Carrie A Tuggle Elementary transitioned to remote Nov. 12th, just three days after Birmingham city schools began reopening in-person classes, WBRC reported. The school recorded 5 new positive cases over the past two weeks.

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Marshall and Colbert county schools fully closed their in-person programs until Jan. 5, WAFF 48 reported. Marshall County Superintendent Cindy Wigley recently tested positive for COVID-19, the news station reported, along with 37 other people in the Marshall system. Nearly 300 others are quarantined.

Colbert County Schools reported 11 positive cases, 10 of them teachers, according to school officials. One Colbert County bus driver, Bobby Stutts, died from COVID-19 earlier in the week, according to several news reports.

Coosa County School System announced on the system’s Facebook page that they would continue virtual learning through the Thanksgiving break before returning Nov. 30. According to the K-12 COVID dashboard, the system has reported no cases. 

Lauderdale County High School will also move to remote learning after increased numbers of students and teachers tested positive for COVID-19, according to a post on the system’s Facebook page. Lauderdale County reported 33 positive cases last week, according to the K-12 COVID dashboard.

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