WINFIELD — Cowley College’s 2019 operating budget was approved Aug. 13 by a 7-1 vote of the Cowley College Board of Trustees, but not before a heated discussion in which one trustee and some community members expressed their concerns about a nearly $1 million shortfall.

Trustee Gary Wilson cast the lone dissenting vote.

The approved budget for 2019 fiscal year is $23,691,628 and it includes a 1-percent cost-of-living increase for college staff.

The estimated property tax mill levy is a little more than 19 mills, which is about the same as in 2018.

The meeting was held at the Allied Health Center at Baden Square in Winfield.

Budget shortfall

Wilson questioned Gloria Walker, Cowley’s vice president of finance and administration, at length about the $955,406 shortfall, expressing concern about where those funds went and why he wasn’t informed by the administration about the budgetary adjustment.

He said he learned about the issue from community members and had heard that the college might have lost as much as $1.5 million.

“What bothers me is that I was not notified by the administration,” Wilson said. “People were walking up to me on the street, asking me, ‘What the hell happened?’”

Former Cowley trustee and administrator Sid Regnier also addressed the board about several issues he had with the proposed budget and other operational problems. Regnier said he wouldn’t approve the budget in its current format.

“I have a lot of concerns about you people,” he said. “What do you do, just accept (the budget)?”

Criticism on multiple fronts

Regnier said he had issues with the college’s continuing decline in enrollment and degrees awarded, along with an increase in staff, poor student success and declining employee satisfaction.

He also complained about the public having to pay for access to public records and said he has written to the state attorney general’s office about the matter.

Regnier said he obtains similar information from other public entities for free, and wondered why the college makes citizens and the media pay.

“I just wonder where you are in respect to Cowley County taxpayers,” Regnier told the board.

‘Accounting error’

The nearly $1 million budget adjustment questioned by Wilson was brought to Walker’s attention in early July.

A July 6 email, sent to the administration by Walker, addressed the shortfall and stated the funds had been allocated to the wrong accounts, but were being moved to the appropriate slots.

Walker also asked the administration to make a 10-percent cut in discretionary budgets for the fiscal year.

She said the problem was merely an “accounting error” and emphasized that the college didn’t actually lose the money.

Walker said when the issue was discovered, she reviewed the entries, identifying the wrongly placed funds.

She said her office is staffed by two accountants, one of whom was out of the office at the tiem, and some of the journal entries were not complete when her report was made for the previous month.

Walker also cited an “early” board of trustees meeting in July as one reason for the report being made with the budget issues going unnoticed.

Sumner costs, Cowley budget

During her review of the records, Walker said she found $94,000 in expenses for the Wellington campus had been applied to the general budget instead of the budget for the Sumner County facility.

She said several other expenses that had not been anticipated — including a drop in headcount, retirement payouts and paying an information technology consultant — contributed to the budgeting problem.

Wilson asked Walker why the 10-percent cut still was needed if she had made the needed adjustments to the projected budget.

Walker said she bases the projected operating budget on an estimated student headcount and the cut will provide a cushion in the event of lower enrollment or students who fail to pay tuition.

She added that making the cuts was the smart thing to do until the administration had a better idea of how those numbers might shake out.

Walker also stated the overall budget likely would have a $20,000 surplus at the end of the year when the final entries are made by auditors.

Rittle responds

College President Dennis Rittle responded to Wilson’s complaint about not being told about the problems earlier.

Rittle said he was unaware of the shortfall until Walker discovered the loss.

He told Walker to investigate the matter and provide him with an explanation.

Rittle added that he was reluctant to share the information he had until he knew the numbers were correct.

He said he hadn’t heard from the public about a possible $1.5 million loss, but told the trustees that if they hear about issues with the college, they should feel free to ask him about it.

“If you hear something, ask me about it,” Rittle said. “I don’t like sharing hearsay. I’m concerned about making statements that are not accurate.”

He added that he is very careful about what language he uses to address such matters and only was made aware of the problem after Walker discovered it. “We needed to find out what was real and what wasn’t,” Rittle said.

Juden praises Walker

Trustee Bob Juden commended Walker for her handling of the problem.

“As soon as you found a problem, you went searching,” Juden said. “That is your job … thank you.”

Juden also asked Walker if such budget issues are normal. She said, “Yes, it’s normal.”

She added that her office doesn’t always have time for a “deep dive” into the college financials each month, especially if she has to prepare a report for earlier-than-normal board meetings.

Wilson wasn’t as convinced of the normalcy of the budget adjustments.

“If losing $900,000 is normal, I’d hate to see abnormal,” he said.

Executive sessions

The board also held two short executive sessions to discuss non-elected personnel and cabinet structure, with no action taking place after.

Trustee Glennis Zimmerman made and Wilson seconded a motion to enter a third closed session — without Rittle present — but it failed on a 2-6 voted. Only Wilson and Zimmerman voted in favor of going into a board-only executive session.

Juden said he had an issue with going into a closed session without Rittle present.

“That’s just my feelings personally,” he said.

This story was written by Ark City Daily Bytes correspondent and columnist Cody Griesel.