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FAMU’s Fiscal Fumblings


This is supposed to be a good time for Florida A&M University. In February, trustees announced the selection of a highly regarded administrator, North Carolina Central University Chancellor James Ammons, to steer the often-embattled 119-year-old historically Black university back on course.

Now the school finds itself in the middle of controversy again — this time over financial fumblings that have state lawmakers requesting a criminal probe and threatening to withhold state funds.

The state has also retained outside expertise to help the school get its financial act together.

A recent draft audit for the 2005-2006 fiscal year found numerous problems with FAMU’s finances, including mismanagement of $50 million in expenses and revenue.

“The only things [Ammons] will recognize when he gets here, in many cases, are the buildings,” says Dr. William P. Tucker, the recently retired FAMU physics professor and president of the faculty union. “We’ve got some serious work ahead of us.”

Florida lawmakers on March 19 sought a criminal investigation into the financial mishaps currently plaguing the university; a decision is pending the outcome of FAMU’s response to the audit. During the public discussion of the audit, the school was warned that if its finances aren’t cleaned up in a timely manner, the Legislature would consider denying state funding.

Ammons, who takes the helm at FAMU in July, said he’s confident the problems his alma mater currently faces are not overwhelming for his administration.

“I’ve had a long and successful history as a college administrator and I’ve had to deal with very challenging issues,” said Ammons, who was recently approved by the Florida Board of Governors as the university’s 10th president. “I don’t think any challenge is too big for the administrative team I will put together and me. I’m confident that we can resolve the problems FAMU is having and restore the university to its rightful place in global higher education.”

Ammons has his work cut out for him.

“It’s a pretty big deal,” says Ted J. Sauerbeck, the audit manager for the Florida Auditor General’s office. “Some of the actions that [legislators] are calling for show it has to be taken very seriously.

I can’t recall that we’ve had a finding like that for any of the other 10 universities” in Florida.

During the 2005-2006 academic year, FAMU’s budget was about $394 million.

A new audit is under way.

The draft audit listed 35 troubling findings that the university must address. Among the audit’s findings:

  • The university listed $1.8 million in athletic ticket sales revenue, but said the records for the sales had been inadvertently discarded.
  • Nearly $18,000 in purchases by the university were not documented by purchase orders or through written contracts, as found in a sampling of 63 financial disbursements.
  • Nearly $12,000 in debt the university had trouble collecting was written off by the university without required approval from the board of trustees.
  • Student tuition refunds were miscalculated. In a sampling of 10 students, two students received about $3,000 more than they were entitled, while another student was shorted $2,300.

In recent months, professors and university-employed students have not been paid for months at a time, prompting many — including the graduate assistants and the university’s newspaper staff — to go on strike. Some of those affected have since been paid.

The university had until April 13 to submit a written explanation of the findings listed in the audit.

Interim FAMU President Castell V. Bryant, who could not be reached for comment, said in a statement recently that the school would work “quickly and carefully” in its response to the complaint.

Sauerbeck says the audits take place every two years, which means the school is allotted that much time through his office to improve on the findings.

“I’d say most of the educational institutions address the majority of our findings by the next time we come in,” he says.

The institution’s financial problems resulted in financial control of the College of Engineering, a joint venture with neighboring Florida State University, being handed off to FSU. Up until late March, the $10.4 million operating budget had for years been controlled by FAMU.

According to the Tallahassee Democrat, FSU President T.K. Wetherell, upon being asked why financial control was changing hands, replied: “Who would you rather have manage your money?”

In the past few weeks, the Florida Board of Governors has established the Task Force on FAMU Financial and Operational Control Issues, which is charged with restoring institutional integrity and accountability.

The task force, which includes members of the board and a former state Supreme Court Justice, will meet regularly and have discussions with the Auditor General’s office and auditing committees from the Legislature and the school’s trustee board. Tucker says worries about the school’s future are premature.

“We’re a long way from some serious problems,” he says. “But Ammons is going to need some competent help when he gets here.”

–Marlon A. Walker

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