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Perspectives: Birmingham News editorial on Alabama’s two-year college system

The discovery of a little-known foundation for Alabama’s two-year college system is further proof these kinds of private entities need more regulation.

Readers of this newspaper learned a lot in recent months about private foundations operating in the shadows at Alabama’s two-year colleges.

They learned state Rep. Yvonne Kennedy sent state money to a foundation at Bishop State Community College, where she also served as president, and that the foundation’s tax filings did not always match bank records as to how the money was spent.

They learned W.L. Langston, the director of the Alabama Fire College, was indicted on charges of (among other things) directing state funds to a private foundation at his school and using foundation money on personal expenses for himself, his family and friends.

They learned state Rep. Bryant Melton sent state money to the Fire College foundation, then got most of it back disguised as scholarships for his daughter for his own personal use.

In other words, we learned these foundations, ostensibly set up for worthy purposes, have been used for questionable and even illegal purposes. Melton already has pleaded guilty to state and federal charges.

Now, there’s more reason to be concerned. This past week brought news that a private foundation also has been operating in the shadows at the two-year college system’s central office.

This foundation, formed in 1997, took in and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars without state school board members even knowing it existed. Postsecondary Chancellor Bradley Byrne, a former school board member, was among those surprised to learn about the foundation.

Perhaps even worse, two school board members weren’t aware they were at various points listed as officers of the foundation.

“I want to know who is responsible for putting me down as an officer,” said board member Ethel Hall, who learned Thursday she had been a foundation officer for most of this decade. “I’m very upset.”

Board member Sandra Ray said she was equally shocked to learn she was listed as a foundation officer in 2006.

She said she never saw any minutes or any financial records from the foundation.

This raises a number of questions that must be answered. Chief among them: How did the system’s foundation raise money and what was it spent for? This is especially intriguing considering how money came and went in the college foundations.

Tax records show at least some of the money went for scholarships at two-year schools, but some went for scholarships at four-year colleges, too. What’s up with that?

Byrne broke the news about the system foundation at the same time he told the board he would soon be asking for approval for new rules to govern these kinds of private entities at colleges.

If board members had any doubt that rules and more oversight are needed, they shouldn’t now.

Clear rules are needed about how foundations can raise money and what they can spend it on. In addition, since the foundations are private and fall outside the normal state auditing channels, the two-year college system must devise a way to monitor and report foundation expenses.

Anything less is an invitation for the kinds of abuse we’ve seen far too much of already.

– Associated Press

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