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Bishop State President on Hot Seat For Financial Aid Problems

For months, Dr. Yvonne Kennedy has sat on the searing presidential seat of Bishop Community College, the Mobile, Ala.-based historically Black institution that has been riddled with numerous scandals over the past four years. 

Bradley Bryne, the new chancellor of the state’s two-year college system, said last week he will decide whether to recommend the firing of Kennedy by the June 28 state school board meeting. Yet, Kennedy may choose today to get off the hot seat on her own accord.

Her state Deferred Retirement Option Program, which she enrolled in five years ago, concludes today, and if she retires she is slated to receive a lump sum of $516,000 in addition to her regular pension, according to the Mobile Press-Register.

The lump sum is the accumulated amount of monthly retirement allowances that were placed in a DROP account over the past five years while she also earned her regular salary. If Kennedy, who has been at the helm of Bishop State since 1981, continues to work, she will no longer be able to defer these retirement payments.

Kennedy’s lawyer, J. Cecil Gardner, says he does not think Kennedy wants to retire.

“Dr. Kennedy has not told me that she is thinking about retiring,” he says. “Until she is able to get those problems corrected, I don’t think she is interested in retiring.”

Twenty-seven employees or former employees of the two-year college, including a former chief student aid officer, have been charged with stealing about $200,000 in financial aid and athletic funds. Also, after reviewing the school’s finances, federal authorities ordered it to repay $150,000 in Pell Grant funds last year. And, Financial Aid Services Inc., which was brought in last November to revamp the financial aid system, found that the college was violating federal regulations by not having a system to verify student aid information.

The financial aid problems first appeared during the 2003-2004 school year with a U.S. Department of Education audit of aid payments. Then, in 2005, state auditors found that one Bishop State alum and four students who were not attending classes were all receiving financial aid. That was followed by the financial aid fraud that surfaced last summer, resulting in the 27 indictments, 14 of which were announced last month.  The FBI is still investigating and the college has been placed on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Kennedy, also a state legislator elected as a Democratic to represent Mobile, has been blasted by critics for allegedly reallocating $94,000 in legislative money to fund hundreds of scholarships, even though she requested the funds in 2003 for the Bishop State Community College Foundation to build a culinary arts laboratory. And last fall, Kennedy was criticized for giving some of the foundation’s scholarship funds to a niece, even though she personally donated the money.

So far, three members of the nine-member state school board have urged Kennedy to retire. All three have been Republicans.

Kennedy would “be doing herself a favor if she steps down before June 28,” Randy McKinney, a Republican on the school board, told the Mobile Press-Register recently. “That was her plan, from what I understand, five years ago, and it would probably be a good thing if she didn’t change her plan. If the board gets the opportunity, I believe they would vote to remove her.”

The editorial boards of the Birmingham News, the Mobile Press-Register and the Montgomery Advertiser — the state’s three major newspapers — have all called for Kennedy’s job.

“While Kennedy has been accused of no crime, she had ample notice of financial aid problems occurring on her watch, and she utterly failed to address them,” wrote the editorial team of the Birmingham News, the state’s largest newspaper. “She has proved to be at best an ineffectual manager.”

According to Gardner, the school board cannot simply terminate her at the end of the month upon Byrnes’ recommendation. Under Alabama’s Fair Dismissal Act, Kennedy must be given the right to contest her termination with a neutral arbitrator.

Gardner says the board and chancellor are erroneously arguing that the act does not apply to college presidents.

“If they take that position and they terminate her, then it will be necessary that we go into court to exercise the rights that we believe she has under the Fair Dismissal Act,” he says. “We are prepared to do that immediately.”

Bishop State has a storied history of providing education for Southern Alabama’s Black community, when higher education was segregated. It was founded in 1927 as a teachers college and evolved into a two-year college nine years later.

Gardner says that the people demanding Kennedy’s job are misinformed about the affairs of the college.

“For people to call for her resignation, it’s very offensive to me because they are talking without nearly enough information, forming judgments that are ill-informed and that are not called for,” he says. “I’ve known Yvonne Kennedy for many years, and I’ve followed her career and I know that she is completely honest. She is bright and she has been an asset to Bishop State and an asset to this community.”

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