The finances of a metro Atlanta technical college are under increased scrutiny, including additional federal oversight, because of mismanagement that caused multiple problems and necessitated a $5.4 million cash infusion to stabilize its budget.
The Technical College System of Georgia in April dismissed Georgia Piedmont Technical College’s President Jabari Simama and suspended other top officials. System officials are scrambling to figure out what went wrong, fix the financial problems and assure about 6,000 students their educational futures are safe.
Officials released a two-page list of frequently asked questions from students that range from whether the college is closing to why their financial aid has not come through.
“The primary message we’re trying to get out there is we are open for business and we will not turn our backs on our students or our business partners,” said Ivan H. Allen, president of Central Georgia Technical College, who is leading a team conducting a review.
Many students were unaware of the situation. Jae Sibert, 26, attended the college this semester to get a payroll accounting specialist certificate, which he said will qualify him for a $15,000 raise. He didn’t know about Simama’s impending departure.
“I hope they get it together, because I know a lot of kids who want to go to a trade school,” Sibert said.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained and reviewed college records, court records, Simama’s personnel file, and communicated with him and other college officials to get a clearer picture of what went wrong. The documentation shows a troubling series of financial and management failures.
The school’s rainy day fund declined from about $4.4 million from fiscal year 2014 to about $700,000 in fiscal 2017, the lowest total of the 22 colleges in the TCSG. Its net position, about $10.5 million, is also the lowest in the system.
The state Department of Audits and Accounts released a report this month that found costly errors by college officials in running programs and abiding by policies and procedures. The likely cost of the errors in all categories totaled at least $93,000. Likely questionable costs for errors could be as high as $2.7 million, the report said.
College officials have often been slow in returning funds to the federal government for students who don’t complete the required 60 percent of a course, according to interviews with officials and records obtained by the AJC. The college received about $20.4 million in federal financial aid funds in the current federal aid year, GPTC officials said.
In February, federal education officials put the college on “Heightened Cash Monitoring 2” status, which requires additional oversight of a college’s finances. The U.S. Department of Education’s February program review revealed “severe findings,” but the DOE declined to discuss them until its final review. Colleges under such status cannot get federal funds for student aid and other programs in advance. It must front the money then ask to be reimbursed. There are currently only seven public colleges nationwide on that status.
TCSG officials removed Simama, effective May 11, and put four other administrative officials, whom they declined to name, on leave. TCSG Commissioner Matt Arthur directed Simama in an April letter not to come to any of the GPTC campuses without Arthur’s approval as part of his administrative-leave conditions.
Simama defended his leadership of the college in written responses to questions from the AJC. He disputed the description of his departure.
Arthur said the system decided to “terminate” Simama’s employment in a letter. Simama says he’s retiring.
“I refused to stand by quietly and allow my stellar reputation to be tarnished by Arthur and TCSG,” Simama wrote. “All my performance evaluations at TCSG have been very positive.”
Simama received satisfactory overall ratings on his annual evaluations, obtained by the AJC.
Simama said there had been a lot of employee turnover in the financial aid and business office over the past two years. He said he took immediate action when federal officials conducted their review, such as working with them on compliance issues, reassigning the financial aid leadership team and appointing an interdepartmental team to tackle the problem. He said he believed the issues would have been resolved by June.
“These problems are generally a combination of communication or technology issues between financial aid, the business office, the registrar, academic affairs and (information technology),” he said.
“I placed a lot of confidence in my staff to carry out their duties professionally and correctly and to report problems to me. Unfortunately, in this case this did not always occur,” Simama said.
The drop in the reserves was caused by actions such as a directive to give staff raises, and drops in revenue from the bookstore, he said.
Records show fewer students are taking courses than in recent years, which has had an impact on college income. After the Great Recession, the college’s enrollment fell sharply from about 8,200 students taking credit courses in 2010 to about 6,300 two years later. Now, it’s about 6,000. Meanwhile, its total staff increased from 729 in January 2014 to 825 in January 2017, according to the college.
Officials have not said if they’ve discovered malfeasance, but there’s evidence of financial mismanagement.
TCSG has given the college $5.4 million in stabilization funds in the past three years to help the budget as enrollment fluctuated, college officials told The AJC. The college received more stabilization funds than any college in the system during that time span, officials said.
Some who questioned Simama’s hiring more than five years ago are eager to know more about what’s going on.
Simama is a former Atlanta City Council member who later became chief of staff to former DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis. Simama applied for the college president’s job in May 2012, as a grand jury investigation of DeKalb ramped up. He was named GPTC’s president that September.
The 2012 special grand jury whose work led to criminal charges against Ellis in June 2013 recommended an investigation of Simama for possible rigging of bids, perjury and manipulating contract selection committees. Simama was not charged with any crimes.
His background included teaching stints at Clark Atlanta University, Georgia Tech and Atlanta Metropolitan State College.
State Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said he was “stunned” by Simama’s hiring and discussed his concerns with then-TCSG Commissioner Ron Jackson. Millar said the commissioner told him Simama would be “on a short leash.”
“[H]opefully the issues will be resolved and it will not adversely affect the student population any further,” Millar said.
Simama said the 2012 selection process was thorough and he received broad support.
“No board members or community leaders ever expressed such concerns to me,” he said.
The college was founded in DeKalb County in 1961 and has undergone six name changes. It has campuses in DeKalb, Morgan, Newton and Rockdale counties.
The student body is reflective of the surrounding area of its main campus near Memorial Drive and I-285 in DeKalb: working-class, mostly African-American and from 88 countries. Nearly three-quarters of its students attend part-time.
Under Simama, the college attempted to position itself as a place that trains students — particularly older students in the workforce — for careers in trending industries. It offers, for example, degrees and certificates in areas such as cyber forensics technology. It partnered with Clark Atlanta University last year on an agreement that, in part, allows Georgia Piedmont students who don’t meet CAU’s academic standards to take remedial courses with a goal of eventually enrolling at CAU.
Simama wrote, “I have led the college for over 5 years in transforming it from a vocational school to a 21st century technical education college relevant and responsive to the workforce needs of our communities.”
Until their investigative work is done, TCSG leaders have been reluctant to discuss specifics about why the financial mismanagement occurred. Anne Kaiser, who joined the TCSG board three years ago and is its chair, said she hopes the system’s review is completed in early May.
The TCSG said its ongoing review is wide-ranging.
“We’re looking at everything from stem to stern,” Allen said.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article included total staff based on published reports prepared by the college’s Office of Institutional Assessment, Planning & Effectiveness. The article has been updated with updated numbers from the college.