Building an education empire

This is a summary of events from 2010 through 2015 about the growth of Cape Fear Community College (CFCC) located in New Hanover County, North Carolina. The account is based on news reports and editorials published by the Wilmington StarNews daily newspaper.

Commentary in this report is the opinion of the author from his observations as a county resident during the period. The intent of this work is to show how political interests, bureaucrats and other advocates for higher education push an agenda to increase their power and influence— accomplished by using public funds to build and expand their “empire.” These people offer little to justify the frequent, expensive increases in size and scope of their ventures.

The new surge of CFCC building started with a 2008 county voter-approved $164 million bond debt to fund construction of three new buildings on the downtown campus and a new site north of the city. At least one of the buildings was questionable as to its suitability to the vocational job training mission of the college. Also dubious were the rapidly expanding programs to fill the new building space.

The original plan included an advanced and emerging technologies building costing $49 million; a $78 million “life sciences” building called Union Station; and a humanities and fine arts center expected to cost more than $36 million.


  In 2010 the county commissioners approved the first sale of $70 million of the bond debt for Union Station and a parking deck. They levied a tax to help pay the cost. Local political interests influenced changes in the plan.

The next project was to build the “long awaited” (but unnecessarily extravagant) Humanities and Fine Arts Center in downtown Wilmington.

From 1994 to January 2012 a college president described by admirers as a “visionary” ruled over a growing empire. During his reign student enrollment had increased from 5,300 to over 12,000; nearly the number at nearby University of North Carolina-Wilmington. After his retirement in 2012 a new president, Ted Spring, from West Virginia was hired.


  In March 2013 the college bought a new ship for the marine technology program, but the program was cut out of the State budget—maybe because an elaborate, expensive marine science complex complete with an ocean-going research ship was built at the University of North Carolina a few miles to the east. Local political pressure revived the CFCC project eliminated from the State budget for the third time in five years. Program operating costs were $680,000.

That year the college board of trustees approved a campus police force without justification to the public.

In June 2013 the county commissioners refused to incur more bond debt because it would mean raising taxes. But the commissioners had approved $54 million for the Humanities and Fine Arts Center. Few members of the county commission or the college board of trustees raised serious or persistent objections to the spending. One member, Woody White, objected (Commissioner White was appointed to the College Board of Trustees). Any tax increase to support the CFCC project he called “unacceptable.”

Mr. White argued that economic conditions when the bond was passed in2008 were quite different than in 2013. Unemployment then was 5.5 percent with a vigorous local economy. A year later the housing market collapsed. During the following Great Recession construction virtually ceased and unemployment in the county jumped to 9.5 percent. In 2013 it was still 7 percent—with economic recovery stalled and wages stagnant.

Political and press pressure mounted, however.  When it was discovered that a county tax increase wasn’t necessary, spending the bond money continued. The county board approved spending for the Arts Center. College officials were excited that they could “move forward.”


 In 2014 the New Hanover County manager recommended that the commissioners budget another $8.6 million for CFCC capital projects. They increased spending for operating costs at the new Union Station building and approved $647,000 for “emergency repairs.” Also the CFCC Foundation raised $5 million for student scholarships.

College administrators wanted another $3.5 million in their operating and facilities budgets for the Humanities and Fine Arts Center, still under construction. Again, Mr. White was the only commissioner to seriously question these requests.

CFCC programs were expanding. One-hundred classes were added to summer school for university and high school students to get college transfer credits. The college was preparing for a new seven-building campus on 24 acres at Surf City in adjacent Pender County. Officials said it would “largely depend on demand,” at a time when CFCC enrollment had recently declined.

Few people were concerned about it. Taxpayers in Surf City contributed $550,000 to the new project. A college official speculated, “There’s enough opportunity and enough people in this area to support multiple community colleges.”

In June New Hanover County commissioners approved a $372.2 million county spending bill for FY 2014-2015. It had “a heavy focus on education.” The community college received a $2 million increase for a total $11 million to “cover operating costs.” Budgeted debt for new CFCC building jumped to $15.3 million. By 2015 debt service consumed 16 percent of the county spending budget.

About a year before the new Humanities and Fine Arts Center was to open, a Wilmington StarNews literary editor wrote a long article describing and promoting the facility.

The building with seating for 1500 people would be the largest of five existing theaters in the county. People with business interests in old downtown Wilmington and, strangely, the managers of the other theaters were enthusiastic about this new venue. Yet, to some of us, this “Lincoln Center” didn’t seem to fit in with the primary mission of the vocational training school, especially in a location better known for “bar-hopping” than “first nighting.”

In the summer of 2014 the college was planning to spend $3.6 million to renovate the 1999, $10 million Swartz Center gymnasium.  Women’s basketball had been added. In addition college people wanted to sponsor a competition basketball team. The city of Wilmington budgeted $100,000 for the project. It will hold 1500 fans. A CFCC athletic director noted, “With the growth of the college and the growth of the athletic program comes the growth of facilities.”

In September a new CFCC police chief was sworn in. The “first wave of hires” was to “bulk up security” at the downtown campus near a high crime area on the north side of the city.

By the end of October concern arose over the need for another CFCC building. An Advanced and Emerging Technologies building had been planned, but it would cost nearly $42 million (various figures show up in the news articles related to the cost of this building).

College Trustee White questioned the spending. He argued that the 2007-2013 Facilities Master Plan called for adding 431,000 square-feet of space to meet a projected 31.5 percent increase in student enrollment. The nearly completed Union Station and the Humanities and Fine Arts Center added 440,000 feet, but college enrollment had only increased 17 percent during the master plan period.

Of course a CFCC vice president pleaded that “flex space” was necessary for her to increase programs and expand building. It came down to being, as she said, “very, very important for the economic growth and the flexibility of our growth in the future”—based on emotion rather than economics.

In an early November board meeting the college trustee’s facilities committee voted 3 to 2 to award a bid for the technologies building. This time its cost was reported at just over $30 million. Again, Woody White protested based on the new buildings under construction actually exceeding the master plan square footage, and the much lower student enrollment than projected.

The college president made an emotional plea for the building: “What we are interested in is training the people of our region so that they can get jobs, earn a good wage, feed their kids, take care of their families and do it right here in our community.” This mission statement was not used to justify the earlier rush to build the downtown Humanities and Fine Arts Center.

That building was described by a StarNews reporter as “a remarkable structure.” Its three stories of 159,000 square-feet houses a 10,000 square-foot “performing arts” lobby (that can accommodate 2,000 people), theaters, studios, specially air conditioned seats, opera boxes, women’s restrooms twice the size of the men’s, a 1,600-seat performance hall, a 108-seat “black box theater,” classrooms,  offices for 60 faculty, and laboratories.

It was never explained how this kind of facility served the jobs-training mission of the college. Wilmington is far from a performing arts Mecca. Jobs where graduates could “earn a good wage” and “take care of their families” in this field are few to nonexistent in New Hanover County and surrounding more rural counties.

Later in November Mr. White was the only college trustee to vote against approval of the technology building (actually two buildings). Little discussion about it took place. StarNews editors declared it a good investment and that the building would “pay the public dividends”—with no evidence to support that claim.


  By January 2015 $124 million of the $164 million bond money had been spent. County commissioners could spend the remaining authorized funds or let the $40 million expire. Only one commissioner stood in the way of college officials and their supporters desire to spend the money.

Meanwhile, the college profited from a State subsidized “cottage industry” called NCWorks. CFCC receives $150 per person to train employees of companies promising to increase their payrolls—another State-sponsored “incentive” program. Employees get cost-free training “tutored” by college instructors. Companies could use their own space for the training, but, of course, they would prefer to use “free” public-funded facilities.

Partly to justify the new technology buildings, CFCC officials argued that the State required 98 square-feet of space per community college student; they claimed to be “over 20 feet shy of that.” Commissioner White rejected that argument based on company space, or “flex space” being available in the new downtown buildings. He was not supported by the other commissioners. New technology buildings on the north campus were approved.

StarNews editors criticized Mr. White for voting against the new buildings, calling him “myopic.” They declared that this new construction was “critical for continued economic growth” and “will be well worth the cost”—again, with no evidence to support their claim.

U.S. Census figures published in the “2015 Book on Business” by the Greater Wilmington Business Journal show less than 84,000 jobs existed in New Hanover County in 2012. Pender County had less than 7,500. One wonders how and where 12,000 FTE students (and thousands more part-time) will get jobs in these counties. Assuming only half of the full-time students enter the workforce each year; that would be 30,000 over the past five years potentially competing for about 90,000 existing jobs.

We are not aware of any studies identifying CFCC student success in the workforce: where and how they are employed and income data. Yet capital expenses and operating costs for buildings and programs have accelerated dramatically.

In the past five years operating costs at CFCC ($104 million per year), $164 million bond debt, plus additional millions for program expansion, other capital expenses, maintenance, and salaries and benefits roughly add up to at least $700 million in public “investment.” Assuming that 30,000 student graduates have benefited (employed locally) from this public expense during that period; that would amount to over $23,000 spent per student.

Obviously, this is not a complete economic analysis, but without one how are we to evaluate whether this is “well worth the cost”? Of course, administrators, faculty, staff and students directly benefit, but we don’t know how the taxpayers benefit?

After the technology buildings were approved for construction at the CFCC north campus, Commissioner White said: “At some point, we have to make tough decisions and stem the addiction to debt that we have on a local level and really in every level of government.” He vowed to continue questioning costs noting “extravagant” and “lavish” aspects of the new downtown college buildings. And he warned of the increased staff and maintenance that will require more spending on the buildings.

A month later the CFCC Board of Trustees approved the 2015-16 college budget asking New Hanover County taxpayers to pitch in another $2 million for an across-the-board increase in employees salaries and to “cover salaries and benefits for custodial and maintenance staff for the Humanities and Fine Arts Center building for 10 months”; as well as $528,401 to pay rising utilities costs for current buildings and the Arts Center.

Pender County taxpayers were expected to pick up the tab for similar expenses at the Surf City campus. Their fair-share would be over a half million dollars—for 6 months.


  Suddenly, on January 22, 2015 we learned that after a two-hour “closed session” of the CFCC Board of Trustees, Chairman Jason Harris announced thanks to President Ted Spring for his service and good wishes in “his future endeavors.” Dr. Spring had been earning over $268,000 and mysteriously resigned. Later we learned that he was told his contract would not be renewed and was offered the opportunity to quite. In March Spring’s lawyer requested he be reinstated as president and threatened a law suit if the trustees did not comply with his wish.

Soon after, it was reported that in 2003 Dr. Spring had been fired from Shelton State Community College in Alabama on allegations of fraud and unethical behavior. He sued for $2 million and settled out of court for $400,000.

Part of Spring’s problem with the CFCC Board was over unauthorized expenses; one to a colleague in West Virginia for a report on continuing education. College officials wouldn’t admit any connection, but they were “revamping” the college continuing education program. The dean of the program said that they planned to work with potential employers to “determine what skills and certifications they look for in candidates to create pathways to employment.” One would think that that would be the first step taken to justify any jobs training program.

Spring sued “alleging a breach of contract and deprivations of civil rights.” In May the CFCC Board responded to dismiss on the grounds that Dr. Spring “has no protected property or liberty interest in continued employment at the college.” Later that month they interviewed four candidates for Spring’s job.

In a June 2015 New Hanover County commissioners meeting a $302 million county budget proposed included a property tax increase to meet “debt payments on bonds.” Commissioners Woody White and Skip Watkins said they would vote against the “avoidable” tax increase. Chairman Jonathan Barfield, Vice Chairwoman Beth Dawson and Commissioner Rob Zapple would vote for it. Mr. White said, “We have to resist government growth and budget within our means.” He virtually stood alone in his persistent stand against the spend-and-tax powers.


  Later that month “interim president,” Amanda Lee, a former vice president, was unanimously chosen as the new president of Cape Fear Community College. She was excited, modest and recognized the power to which she owed allegiance. “It’s very humbling to sit in this room with these trustees who are such experts in their field and so willing to give of their time to support the college”—acknowledging that they represent the interests of the college rather than the public interest.

Ms. Lee would receive an annual salary of $220,000: “$155,587 in state funds plus a supplement of $64,613 per year.” By fall that year President Lee was “looking ahead” for “new projects and initiatives.” She said, “I think what we are trying to do is make sure that we are meeting the community’s needs and exceeding their expectations.”

That academic jargon has no meaning to the taxpayers, but it will result in them paying more and being responsible for future debt—much more of it is proposed in 2016.


September 22, 2015- StarNews staff reported on a new bonanza of debt-spending “working its way through the N. C. General Assembly.”

Republican Governor McCrory was on board a new train of debt with a car load of State legislators and bureaucrats proposed to unload on the taxpayers—billed as their “top priority” for spending.

Connect N.C. was rolling down the legislative track toward Porkville with a “scaled-back” (from $3 billion) $2 billion cash-cargo to be distributed to various political interests along the way—voters would decide, but Civitas polls (in January 2016) showed that 66 percent of Democrat and 42 percent of Republican voters would approve the debt, despite polling that showed a large majority of both party voters expected taxes to go up as a result.

Who cares? The pain would be inflicted on future taxpayers.

UNC-Wilmington officials were expected to expand their growing empire with more than $67 million for a new allied Health and Human Services and Nursing building—nearly $2 million more than the State House had approved for the project. A university spokeswoman said that this would support the “tremendous growth” at the College of Health and Human Services.

In 2010 UNCW opened a $30 million “state-of-the-art,” 75,000-square-foot nursing school building. It has “mocked up health settings, a lab, an operating room, an acute care unit and physical exam rooms.”

The Cape Fear Community College was expected to get $6.75 million, an increase of $1.2 million over the House plan. No word has been heard of a joint use of the UNCW nursing facilities by CFCC students—in the interest of saving money.

The House and Senate want this bond question on the ballot, respectively, for the 2016 March primary and the November general elections.

And it is certain that university and college administrators and beneficiaries will be hard selling (to avoid conflict of interest they call it providing “information”) this proposed bond debt until Election Day.


About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
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