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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.

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

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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.

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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Analysis | There’s a better plan for reopening schools — if Alabama leaders will use it

Josh Moon

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Maybe there will be a plan for reopening schools after all. 

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is set to meet with Gov. Kay Ivey’s staff on Tuesday morning to discuss an ambitious and comprehensive plan to reopen Alabama’s public schools that would see every school in the state get a new, stand-alone nurses station, a testing machine, a full-time nurse and tools to test and check students’ temperatures. 

The plan, known as the Safely Opening Schools Program, or SOS, was put together by the Alabama School Nurses Association and has the backing of several doctors and the Alabama Education Association. It was presented to some lawmakers earlier this month. 

State Sens. Jabo Waggoner, Jim McClendon and Bobby Singleton — two top Republicans and the highest-ranking Democrat — have since submitted requests for funding out of Alabama’s portion of CARES Act money to pay for the various components of the plan. 

In a letter sent last week to Ivey, Singleton said he was “excited by the plan,” and believes it will “address, to some degree, the inequity (in his local school districts) and allow my constituents to feel that they are receiving the same support to reopen their schools as the more affluent districts of our state.”

The SOS program contains, essentially, three pieces: Building 500-square-feet nurses stations/isolation rooms at every school, purchasing testing machines and supplies and hiring approximately 300 nurses for the schools around the state that are currently lacking one. (Every school is technically required to have a school nurse, but the systems have circumvented that requirement by allowing a district nurse to cover multiple schools.)

In total, the plan is projected to cost roughly $150 million — almost all of it (around 90 percent) coming from the nearly $2 billion in CARES Act funds provided to Alabama by the federal government. (The remaining portion is projected to be covered by other grants.) Included in those costs are the nurses’ salaries for two years and the construction of more than 1,300 stand-alone nurses stations/isolation rooms — each costing a little less than $50,000. 

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In addition, each school would receive its own testing device, which nurses would be trained to use, and testing supplies. If used as the program projects, Alabama schools would turn in more than 500,000 tests in nine months, with blind results being sent to the Centers for Disease Control for data collection purposes. The testing machines can also be modified to test for other ailments, such as the different types of flu.  

To put the total cost in perspective, the state has already spent at least $150 million — it received $115 million in grants from the CDC and received part of the more than $450 million the federal government sent to Alabama earlier this year — to test less than 10 percent of the state’s population over the last six months. 

The SOS program could potentially test between 12-15 percent in far less time, and in a setting where early detection could prevent massive hotspots. 

It’s a good program, and it would likely be worth the costs if only for the things mentioned. 

But those things are only half of the benefits of this program. Maybe not even half. 

Consider this: Included in the costs, every school in every city in Alabama, regardless of income level or parental involvement or poverty rates, will get a state-of-the-art nurses station and a fulltime school nurse. 

To care for children who rarely see any sort of healthcare professional. To diagnose the early signs of disease or mental health issues. To spot the early warning signs of physical abuse or drug addiction. 

In every school in Alabama. For two full school years. 

“This is extremely important to my communities, as they lack school nurses and other critical health access,” Singleton wrote to Ivey. “The opportunity to have testing/screening on-site and nurses to address students’ health needs would be of tremendous assistance to the residents in my district.”

The same could be said for school districts, and for school children, all over the state. 

The simple fact is there is no better plan offered for reopening Alabama’s schools. The others, including the “roadmap” presented by state superintendent Eric Mackey last week, mostly fail to account for known shortages in teachers, staff and nurses, and they offer no assurances for worried parents. 

The SOS plan would take the burden of monitoring and quarantining sick students off the staff and faculty, would establish a clear protocol for dealing with the virus in our schools and would assist the state and federal government with accurate, real-time data. In addition, it could be a health lifeline for kids in rural and impoverished areas. 

There is no better plan.

 

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State releases plans for expected school reopenings in the fall

Micah Danney

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Schools are expected to reopen at the start of the school year but rules will vary by district and by school, with guidelines and recommendations from the Alabama State Department of Education instead of a mandated statewide plan.

Remote learning will be key, said State Superintendent of Education Eric Mackey on Friday. Many parents around the state want it, especially for children with medical conditions, he said.

The Department of Education plans to build out a statewide remote learning system that includes WiFi hotspots and a learning management system that makes lessons, tests and teacher correspondence accessible on smartphones.

As many as 80 percent of parents polled in some counties said they want to keep their kids at home when school starts, Mackey said, so fully remote learning will be an option for those who want it.

There is no deadline for districts to report their individual plans to the state.

Contact-tracing will be an important tool to prevent outbreaks and keep students and staff safe, said State Health Officer Scott Harris. Measures taken seasonally to prevent the spread of flu will become routine procedure, with stricter cleaning regimens and quick response to possible symptoms of illness.

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The most important screening begins at home, the officials said. Parents will need to check temperatures and watch for early symptoms.

Mackey said that some things will need to change more than others. Athletic competitions can go on with social distancing measures in place, like spacing out students on the sidelines and spectators in the bleachers. 

Activities like choir practice will need to adjust more creatively due to the higher risk of contagion that comes with packing students together to sing for long periods of time.

Small groups will be preferable to large gatherings. Outdoor activities are better than indoors. Shorter events are safer than longer ones. Congestion in hallways and at choke points like school entrances should be mitigated. Such will be the guidelines and recommendations that individual facilities will consider.

Harris said he was confident that the department’s approach is a good one, but said that decisions are being made according to present circumstances. Cases are increasing daily, he said. He stressed that the public’s behavior moving forward is critical.

“The decisions we make every day will determine how this turns out,” Harris said.

The Alabama Education Association issued a statement that approved of the state’s deference to local decision-making.

“With AEA’s strong presence in every school district in the state, AEA will be there when those plans are drafted and make sure student and educator voices are heard in the process,” said AEA President Sherry Tucker. “The health, safety, and success of students and educators are top priorities for AEA. We welcome parents and other community leaders to join with us as we move forward.”

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AlabamaWorks Governor’s Survey deadline extended one week

Staff

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AlabamaWorks and the Alabama Workforce Council announced on Thursday the deadline for responses to the Governor’s Survey of Employer Competencies — a new tool to survey business owners in different sectors and regions and identify current, in-demand occupations and the credentials of value aligned to those occupations — has been extended one week and will now close on Friday, July 3.

“This survey is vitally important as we continue in our ‘Strong Start, Strong Finish’ education and workforce initiative,” said Gov. Kay Ivey. “We remain committed to our post-secondary attainment goal of adding 500,000 highly skilled employees to the workforce by 2025, and this survey will help us clearly identify the in-demand careers and associated skills that will help us develop the necessary competency models needed to reach that goal and provide quality opportunities for Alabama’s citizens.”

The majority of jobs lack specification regarding the necessary skills required to perform the job and, as a result, the bachelor’s degree has become the default certification for most jobs that require a postsecondary education. Identifying the skills, knowledge, abilities and attributes needed to succeed at in-demand jobs will prepare Alabama’s workforce for the future. 

The Governor’s Survey of Employer Competencies will be conducted annually to assist the 16 Technical Advisory Committees of the Alabama Committee on Credentialing and Career Pathways with their work of linking credentials of value to one or more specific competencies and then sequencing competencies to build the DNA for a career.

“The AWC has consistently engaged in and supported efforts regarding credentialing,” noted AWC Chairman Tim McCartney. “The future of workforce in Alabama will be highly impacted by these efforts to establish clear career pathways that are built upon the skills and knowledge shown to be in the most need and provide the highest value for employees and employers across the state.”

 

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Jacksonville State considers renaming Bibb Graves Hall

Eddie Burkhalter

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As municipalities and schools across the South grapple with monuments devoted to the Confederacy post-George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer, Jacksonville State University looks toward its own Bibb Graves Hall, named for the former governor and Klu Klux Klan member. 

Matthew Reeves, a 2020  graduate of JSU, started an online petition Saturday calling on the university to rename the building, built in 1930, and which houses the school’s administrative offices. 

Reeves told APR on Wednesday that after talking with a friend at the University of North Alabama about that school’s own Bibb Graves Hall, he decided to do something himself to enact change locally. 

As of Wednesday afternoon, 3,072 people had signed his petition, including one person who in a comment on the petition welcomed the change. 

“From a  person of color considering this college in the future, it would make me feel more included,” the person wrote. 

Reeves suggests the school consider renaming the building after Barbara Curry-Storey, JSU’s first black student and a 1969 graduate of the university. 

In a post Monday to the university’s Facebook page, acting JSU President Don Killingsworth Jr. wrote about the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis, and about the possibility of changing the name of campus buildings. 

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Two weeks ago today, George Floyd breathed his last breath. We have all watched in horror as the video has been replayed again and again in national news. Our hearts are broken for his family,” Killingsworth wrote. “What happened to him and what continues to happen to Black men, women, and children across our nation is appalling and unacceptable. We recognize that this event, along with many others, is disturbing to so many, especially our Black students and colleagues.” 

Killingsworth said JSU will establish a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Campus Center to address racism and to work to help the campus community “broaden understanding of our diverse experiences.” 

“JSU’s administration is aware of the conversation taking place on social media regarding the names of certain buildings on our campus. Please know that we hear you,” Killingsworth said. “The administration has appointed a special task force of students to further address the building names in conjunction with the Student Government Association President. According to the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, we must obtain State approval to change the names of buildings more than 40 years old on state property.” 

Reeves said Killingsworth has been good about listening to students’ concerns, and that he believes Killingsworth is headed in the right direction, but that it’s important to continue to hold the administration accountable. 

“We’re gonna stay on top of it and make sure that it really happens,” Reeves said, adding that there’s a JSU Board of Trustees meeting in July that he’s certain himself and a group of former and current JSU students will attend. 

The University of Alabama System’s Board of Trustees recently approved the removal of three plaques honoring Confederates, and appointed a group of trustees to review and study the names of buildings on all UA System campuses. 

Similar petitions urging building name changes have been signed by current and former students at the University of Alabama and at Auburn University. 

“I think it’s a great first step. Obviously, we have a long way to go, and changing the name of a building or taking a statue is not going to end racism,” Reeves said. 

But perhaps doing so will open doors and lead to more substantive change, he said. 

JSU acting President Don Killingsworth’s full statement: 

“Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff,

“Two weeks ago today, George Floyd breathed his last breath. We have all watched in horror as the video has been replayed again and again in national news. Our hearts are broken for his family. What happened to him and what continues to happen to Black men, women, and children across our nation is appalling and unacceptable. We recognize that this event, along with many others, is disturbing to so many, especially our Black students and colleagues.

“Members of the JSU family have shared the pain they are feeling because of Mr. Floyd’s death. Let us be clear: Jacksonville State University values Black lives. We stand firmly against the harm and injustice people of color continue to face, and we are committed to addressing systemic racism through actions we take individually and as an institution.

“A timely opportunity for JSU to continue to address social injustices is upon us. In February, a group of faculty, students, and community partners applied to the Association of American Colleges and Universities to participate in a summer institute on “Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation.” JSU was notified in March that we were approved to participate, and we will be moving forward with this opportunity. As a part of this initiative, JSU will establish a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Campus Center and will collaborate with the community to work to dismantle racism. This center will work to help the campus community broaden understanding of our diverse experiences.

“JSU’s administration is aware of the conversation taking place on social media regarding the names of certain buildings on our campus. Please know that we hear you. The administration has appointed a special task force of students to further address the building names in conjunction with the Student Government Association President. According to the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, we must obtain State approval to change the names of buildings more than 40 years old on state property.

“While there is no way to erase the harm our faculty, staff, and students of color are experiencing, please know that JSU offers resources to help you seek care and support. Faculty, staff, and peers, please encourage your students, colleagues, and friends to seek resources and help from these university services and staff:

“Students may seek assistance through the JSU Counseling Center by requesting counseling services or by calling 256-782-5475. The center is staffed by individuals steeped in knowledge of counseling those who have experienced racial trauma, and they are glad to offer assistance to anyone affected by the recent events.

“The Associate Dean of Students, Josh Robinson, can help with student advising and referral, and he will inform students about options and resources for getting the help they may need. Contact the Dean of Students Office at 256-782-5491.

“Employees who are interested in talking to someone should reach out to the JSU Human Resources Office at 256-782-5007.

“Several individuals have asked about giving a gift in memory of George Floyd. JSU has created a new scholarship with management by JSU’s Black Alumni Chapter, which will select recipients. If you are interested in making a donation to this scholarship, please click here, scroll down in the Fund Designation section, and choose Black Alumni Chapter Endowed Scholarship. Choose the In-Memory option and fill out that section.

“JSU is beginning the recruitment process for a Diversity and Inclusion administrator. The person in this position will be another resource for the campus community and will assist the institution in fostering a sense of belonging for all students, faculty, and staff.

“Finally, please know that we are here for you and will work tirelessly to ensure an inclusive, safe, and welcoming environment for the entire JSU family.

Sincerely,

Dr. Don C. Killingsworth, Jr.

Acting President”

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