Charles A. Taylor joined the Community Colleges of Spokane (CCS) as chancellor/chief executive officer in the summer of 1999. He took the reins of an institution that serves more than 50,000 students, has a staff of approximately 2,000, including about 1,000 tenured and part-time faculty members, and requires an annual budget of more than $62 million. He came with excellent recommendations, says CCS Board of Trustees President Helen Malone, yet his tenure was abruptly cut short last month. And no one -- especially not the Board of Trustees, which is ultimately responsible for the hiring of the chancellor -- seems to be willing to explain why.
"I was let go at the October 11 board of trustees meeting, and I have no idea why," says Taylor matter-of-factly over a cup of coffee at a South Hill breakfast hangout. Taylor says he received a cell phone call on Wednesday, October 10, just as he was getting ready to board a plane to San Diego for a conference. Malone was on the line.
"She told me I had been reassigned to work at home. There were no reasons, no explanation, nothing like that," recalls Taylor. "She also said that the CCS would not be paying for the trip I was about to go on, but that I was welcome to go on my own if I so chose."
The following day, the CCS Board of Trustees announced that Taylor was being let go, citing no other reason than a paragraph in Taylor's contract that allows the board to let him go for no reason and at any time.
Today, almost a month later, Taylor maintains that he was totally taken by surprise.
"I mean, people knew before I knew. The student government knew, and there were people on the faculty who knew as well, before the board even had made its decision," says Taylor. "I had absolutely no idea this was coming."
But statements like this continue to infuriate some of his critics on the faculty.
"That's so typical of him," says Jerry O'Neil, an instructor at Spokane Falls Community College. "He's going to continue to hold on to that, but there is no way around it. Under his tenure, money was mismanaged or misspent, that's what happened. Of course he's never going to admit that."
Adding to O'Neil's fury are new allegations that Taylor committed to spending a little more than $800,000 on -- among other things -- CCS's new offices on the Riverpoint campus. It's a figure that will put some of CCS's reserve accounts in the red, if another funding source isn't found soon.
Taylor's tenure as chancellor of CCS was anything but
smooth. He first brought on the wrath of at least part of
the faculty when he demoted Spokane Falls Community College President Diana Van Der Ploeg. Angry SFCC faculty members charged the board with sitting silently by while Taylor was abusing his power to hire and fire.
Some faculty members maintained that it was for the board to decide which college presidents were hired or fired, and that the board had signed away that power to Taylor, effectively leaving any CCS top executive at Taylor's mercy. Taylor maintains there was no abuse of power and he was just doing his job.
According to a letter sent in August from retired SFCC faculty member Pete Wyman to Washington's Attorney General Christine Gregoire and the board, this move was a violation of the law by which community colleges are run, because it effectively leaves the board out of the decision-making process.
But Malone maintains that the rules were nearly the same for Taylor as they had been for any other chancellor at the college. He had a bit more power in the beginning of his tenure, but that was changed.
"Under the previous chancellor, we had changed the hiring policy to give him more authority, but what we thought we had changed it to didn't match what we actually had changed it to," says Malone. "It was reviewed and changed again while Taylor was chancellor."
Also in August, the board received a nine-page letter written on behalf of a faculty group called Educators for Higher Accountability and signed by Wyman. Current SFCC faculty members Don Brunner, who's vice president of the union at SFCC, Jerry O'Neil and Diane DeFelice all say they stand by the letter, which outlines a long list of Taylor's alleged wrongdoings, including:
4 Taylor moved the CCS's district offices to Riverpoint, spending college money on purchasing the building, higher-salaried administrators and fancy new offices;
4 Taylor was paid a $15,000 bonus;
4 He signed a contract with an online company called e-Werkz that would enable students to order books online, but the company behind the deal never was able to get the system to work;
4 Taylor filled administrative positions prior to letting committees post vacant faculty positions, and prior to a hiring freeze he knew was pending.
"I'm very familiar with that letter," says Taylor. "But I maintain that I did the right things, and that I'm proud of what CCS has accomplished in the two years I was there."
One can only guess whether the faculty letter prompted the board to look more closely at how Taylor was conducting his daily business -- because trustees aren't talking.
"The board is not into micromanagement," says Malone. "We depend on the CEO to follow through on the direction we set, and to bring the issues back to us and keep us informed on what's going on."
There are three responsibilities the board does not delegate: the writing of policy, the selection and hiring of a chancellor/CEO and the granting of tenure. Malone declines to comment specifically on what it was that got the board eventually to fire Taylor.
"All I'll say is that some events occurred this summer that made the board go into what I'll call an investigative mode," says Malone. "We spent three months looking into the information we were getting and talking to people."
Malone maintains that the board was communicating with Taylor all along. But Taylor says he was never aware he was being investigated or that the board was looking into his affairs.
"I guess they must have found that I was doing a good job," he says. "In July I got an evaluation that was superior, and at that time I got an extended contract. It was extended for three years. I also got the $15,000 incentive that was part of my contract."
Malone says the $15,000 was not an extra bonus, but part of Taylor's salary structure right from the beginning. Taylor says he had no reason to believe the board was unhappy with his performance and points to a list of supportive memos and statements.
"At Board of Trustees meetings in July and August, the board explained to people in the audience that I had met all the goals and was performing satisfactorily," says Taylor. "Questions were asked by people in the audience, but the board never wavered from its response that I was performing satisfactorily."
Out on the campuses, the board also showed its support and approval of Taylor.
"On September 7, they sent out a letter to faculty talking about all the accomplishments I had achieved," he says, still claiming he's clueless as to what specifically led to his final pink slip.
But the letter from some of the faculty members containing all those allegations -- that can't just have come out of thin air?
"You use exactly the right four-letter word 'some.' There are over 1,000 faculty members at CCS. If more people agreed that I was such a bad leader, they could have taken a vote of no confidence," says Taylor. "Instead, 95 percent of them signed on to the new bargaining contract, a percentage that's so high it's totally unheard of. There weren't any decisions made that negatively impacted the faculty. They got their raises, the classes were full, we didn't fire anyone; actually we increased the number of faculty members while I was there."
So is it just a matter of personality issues, a vendetta against Taylor instigated by a few faculty members? "I refuse to speculate. I can't tell what's going on in other people's heads," says Taylor.
O'Neil says the idea of a vendetta is ludicrous: "Look at it this way: we all have tenure. We have nothing to gain from speaking up."
Maybe nothing hurt the faculty while
Taylor was CEO, but come winter
quarter it looks as if CCS is going to have to pay for at least one of his decisions.
Remember the allegation that Taylor was spending money on fancy new offices and administrative positions? Well, it turns out that at least part of that is true.
In a memo sent out to faculty members on Friday, Nov. 4, interim Chancellor/CEO David P. Habura writes that he has just been made aware that a set of reserve accounts will run substantially into the red if spending continues at previously planned levels. He found out at his first budget briefing as the new CEO.
"To the best of my knowledge and by all indicators, the trustees were not aware of the situation and are as dismayed as I am," Habura wrote. He continued to explain that it is quite normal for colleges the size of CCS to have a few million dollars set a side in these accounts -- mainly stemming from enrollment that exceeds the state funded level and overhead collections from grants and contracts.
"At the end of the 2000-2001 fiscal year, these accounts had a balance of $192,031," Habura wrote. "That alone isn't great news, but what follows is definitely bad news. Previously planned expenditures for 2001-2002... will create a sizeable negative balance by the end of this fiscal year. By sizeable I mean $806,000!"
Included in that deficit, according to Habura's memo, is a $500,000 rent bill for the district's new offices at Riverpoint One, a $200,000 cost overrun from moving into that building, $70,000 for marketing and $36,000 in additional smaller commitments. Perhaps this is the real reason Taylor was let go.
When Taylor proposed moving the CCS district offices to Riverpoint, he made the case that other tenants in the building would pay the rent -- a solution that has clearly not materialized.
"He told the faculty that other renters in the building would foot the bill," says Diane DeFelice, an instructor at SFCC. "When the district offices moved, the faculty was very upset. We asked him where the money was going to come from, and he assured us CCS wasn't going to lose anything. He made it sound like we got a much better deal than we did."
O'Neil is equally upset, not only at Taylor but at the board and other administrators who were serving while these decisions were being made.
"I'm very concerned about the board's role in this whole thing," says O'Neil. "How did the board sit by and let him do this? The administration claims the board has no knowledge of this -- how can that be? I mean, this is borderline criminal. This memo clearly shows that Taylor took money from the colleges he wasn't supposed to." O'Neil also points fingers at CCS Comptroller Tay Conrad, who served under Taylor.
"This is a very sad chapter for our school," O'Neil says. "I don't understand how this could happen."
In the meantime, Habura is working hard with the administration, trying to find a solution to the budget shortfall that won't hurt the colleges or the Institute for Extended Learning. Just as any other state college, CCS faces state budget cuts next year mainly because of the recession. At the same time, enrollment is expected to continue to go up. It's not going to be easy.
The CCS Board of Trustees clearly has ques-
tions to answer, but for now chooses to
remain silent. The problem is that issues like this usually don't go away on their own, and the rumor mill is running full speed as long as no official explanation is provided.
In private industry, a CEO let go in the same manner as Taylor was -- suddenly, after positive performance reviews -- would be likely to sue. If that is what comes out of this mess, CCS is going to have to pay lawyers' fees on top of everything else, not to mention any restitution Taylor may or may not be awarded.
When asked if he is going to file a lawsuit against his former employer, Taylor has this to say: "I won't say anything other than I'm keeping all my options open."