N.J. Students Struggle With Tuition as Schools Give Perks

In May 2011, a U.S. representative hailed Robert C. Messina Jr. in the Congressional Record as a “role model to the rest of the country” for his 25 years as president of Burlington County College, a two-year New Jersey school.

Back home, Messina was being called something else: unaffordable. His compensation from the county was $249,000 in 2010 after officials tried and failed to renegotiate his contract. Among his perks were lifetime dental, life and long-term health insurance and $75,000 for unused vacation days.

Such generosity may be at an end. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has ordered an investigation of the pay awarded to administrators of the state’s 19 community colleges. A May 30 report from Comptroller Matt Boxer found annual compensation packages as high as $441,000, padded with country-club memberships, the use of luxury vehicles, $460 steakhouse dinners and a $680 bill to move an incoming president’s pet.

“They just thought they were kings and queens,” Joseph Malone, the new chairman of the Burlington college’s board, said of the presidents who had scored such contracts. “What would possess boards of trustees in the past to do that?”

About half of the 441,400 students attending college in New Jersey are enrolled in two-year schools, according to budget testimony from the state Commission on Higher Education. The colleges, established in the 1960s as low-cost, close-to-home sources for job training and associate’s degrees, often cast themselves as springboards to universities, where students can transfer credits toward bachelor’s degrees.

‘Huge Disparities’

All public colleges were overseen by the state until 1994, when legislators abolished the Department of Higher Education and transferred governance to individual boards of trustees. Members, appointed by county officials and the governor, negotiate contracts with the presidents.

The arrangement has resulted in “huge disparities” in not only the salaries of community college presidents, but other forms of compensation, Boxer said in his report.

“There are no state standards or guidelines for college trustees to rely on when setting compensation terms for their president,” Boxer said. “It’s appropriate to set boundaries when schools are spending taxpayer dollars.”

The 19 schools collected $1.4 billion in revenue in 2010, with county and state governments providing 37 percent, and tuition payments accounting for 31 percent.

Tuition Costs

Tuition and fees at New Jersey community colleges are among the highest in the U.S., averaging $4,111 per year for in-state students, or 47 percent more than in 2004-05, according to data compiled by the College Board, a New York-based not-for-profit that lobbies on education issues. The charges rose 39 percent to $1,119 in California in the same period, and 30 percent to $4,253 in New York. The national average was $2,963 for the 2011-12 school year.

“It’s not fair to the tuition-payers and their families, and it’s not fair to the taxpayers who subsidize at the county level and the state level the operations of county colleges,” Christie, 49, a first-term Republican, told reporters in Trenton on May 30 when asked about Boxer’s report.

The average salary for presidents of two-year schools nationally was $165,000, according to a 2009-2010 study of 208 colleges by Yaffe & Co., a Towson, Maryland-based consultant to non-profits. Of New Jersey’s 19 such colleges, 16 paid their presidents more than $165,000, Boxer’s report showed.

Country Club

The highest base salary, $259,969, was for Thomas Brown, the president of Union County College who retired at the end of 2010. His total compensation, $441,100, also was the highest.

Brown was on sabbatical that year and received full pay and benefits, according to Boxer’s report. Margaret McMenamin, who replaced Brown, received a base salary in 2010 of $220,000, 15 percent below her predecessor’s. Her contract included dining privileges at a country club, at a cost of $2,800.

Christopher Guaraca, a 23-year-old student at the Union college in Cranford, called the pay packages “unfair” during a June 1 interview at the student center, as he complained about dated computers that took a half-hour to boot up.

“You’ve got students who are literally working day and night just to get through here,” said Guaraca, who juggled a roofing job while pursuing his architecture degree. “If that money went more toward the classrooms and the things that students need, it would be much better for all of us.”

College Cars

Fifteen presidents were provided cars, with one, Edythe Abdullah of Essex County College in Newark, given the use of a Lincoln MKZ luxury sedan. Two vehicles had satellite radio at an additional cost to the college, the report found.

Essex also paid $20,176 for Abdullah’s cost to move from Florida, according to Boxer. That included $680 for her dog, Karma, to travel safely, she said in a telephone interview yesterday.

“There need to be guidelines,” she said of presidents’ future compensation.

The contract for Jon Larson, president of Ocean Community College in Toms River, included an E-ZPass toll transponder for personal use and the third-highest compensation, $300,793.

“He should not be paid this much,” said Kathy Tietge, 48, of Toms River, a philosophy professor and president of the college’s full-time faculty union, with 102 members. In April, a vote of no-confidence in Larson passed with 60 of 67 members who cast ballots in favor. “The president has told me on a number of occasions that we are financially in a problem.”

Travel Costs

Larson, who is 71 and lives in Toms River, declined an interview request.

“The comptroller’s report speaks for itself and I have no problem with the way it reported my compensation,” he wrote in an e-mail May 31.

Boxer’s report found that at least two of the colleges paid travel expenses for their president’s spouse. One, Cumberland County College, covered the $495 cost of airfare for the wife and $140 for meals for the couple during the trip to a convention in Seattle.

Patricia Donohue, president of Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, received compensation of $229,100 and a monthly housing stipend of $2,000 in 2010, according to Boxer. The school paid her moving expenses of $12,200 in 2007.

“It’s a little surprising,” said Semion Ribansky, 24, an Israeli citizen who lives in Plainsboro and is studying engineering science at Mercer. “I would think there are presidents who are passionate about this, rather than for the financial gain.”

Brookdale Audit

Boxer began reviewing executive pay at the schools last year after newspaper reports about such arrangements led to the resignations of presidents at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft and Gloucester County College in Sewell.

Brookdale paid $27,382 for tuition for the president’s children in 2010, and an additional $13,375 to cover the income-tax liability related to those reimbursements, Boxer said. The president’s total compensation was $329,911 in 2010.

Boxer also found that Brookdale paid more than $11,000 in dues and other fees for its president’s membership to a country club in 2010. Another $10,574 covered lodging costs, including $900 for five stays at a hotel about 90 minutes from campus. College officials were unable to explain why the president needed to stay at this hotel, Boxer’s report said.

President Suspended

Brookdale made changes after its board suspended the president, Peter Burnham, in March 2011 amid a three-year audit of his expenses. Burnham, 68, of Colts Neck, resigned, and the school referred the matter to the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office. The case remains under investigation, Christopher Gramiccioni, first assistant prosecutor, said in a June 1 telephone interview.

There was no response to a message left June 4 at a telephone number listed for Burnham. His lawyer, Steven Secare of Toms River, didn’t return a June 1 call.

Brookdale hired an interim president, William M. Toms, 48, a retired state trooper from Millstone Township, at a salary of $150,000. It also hired an internal auditor to find cost savings, established a fraud hotline, restricted travel and adopted federal guidelines for expenses.

Toms, in a June 3 telephone interview, said he routinely works 16 hours, drives his personal car and pays for fuel “on my own nickel.”

“We have a fiduciary responsibility,” Toms said. “The idea of having some guidance in place statewide is a step in the right direction.”

Contract Terms

In Burlington County, two freeholders had tried since 2010 to renegotiate a contract with Messina, the president who was honored by Representative Rob Andrews, a New Jersey Democrat, in remarks submitted in May 2011 to Congress.

Andrews, in a telephone interview yesterday, said he had “the highest regard” for Messina. “His value far exceeded his compensation,” Andrews said.

Messina, 65, from Mount Holly, retired in February. There was no response to a message left June 1 at a telephone number listed to him. The post-employment benefits for him and his wife will cost Burlington more than $110,000 over the next 10 years, Boxer estimated.

“That type of entitlement is wrong,” Bruce Garganio, freeholder director, said in a June 1 telephone interview. The incoming president will have a less generous contract, he said.

“Every time they overextend, it went straight to the kids who are having a tough time receiving an education,” he said.

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