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Florida A&M faithful wait for fallout

Payroll problems and talk of a criminal inquiry leave some students wondering about the school's future - and their own.

By TOM MARSHALL and NADIA A. MUNDY
Published March 21, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - The run of bad news may have reached a tipping point this week at troubled Florida A&M University: Some students are talking about leaving.

"If the problems get worse, I am not going to stay," Lucienne Joseph, a junior from Miami, said. "If it affected my graduation, I would definitely transfer out. And if I have kids in the future, I would check the status of this school before I allow them to apply."

Enrollment is dropping, university accreditors are concerned, and some legislators are calling for a criminal inquiry after an audit showed more than $50-million in undocumented spending and revenues.

Not all students and alumni know what to make of such news, but they know it's bad.

"When you have teachers not getting paid, it builds up aggravation, confusion, and tension," said sophomore Mario Otkins of Tampa, referring to a flap last winter when some adjunct professors did not get paid.

"It deters a lot of students from coming here in the future," he said. "I thought about leaving a few times when I heard rumors of the money problems that we were having."

State university chancellor Mark Rosenberg announced plans Tuesday to form a task force to examine FAMU spending, reducing the likelihood of quick leadership changes at the university before this summer's installment of president James Ammons.

Gov. Charlie Crist, who has the power to fire the university's board of trustees, said the school should be given an opportunity to correct things on its own.

"There's new leadership there," Crist said. "So I'm encouraged that this ought to be more about the future than the past. It's disconcerting to read those kinds of headlines ... but I'm glad that we're going to have some new leadership there."

Not everyone in the FAMU community agreed with a take-it-slow approach.

"This board of trustees, yes, get rid of them," said Donald Rutledge, a 1964 graduate and president of the Upper Pinellas-Clearwater chapter of the FAMU National Alumni Association. "I don't see one thing they have done, but help create the problems we have. I have no reservations in saying they need to go."

He said prospective students are wondering whether the Legislature will continue to support the university, whether it will even exist by the time they graduate. Current students come home for vacation with tales of long lines and frustration at the financial aid office, he said.

"If it affects my graduation, then I will leave," said senior Norman Siefert of Miami. "It has affected me academically because I have been in financial aid lines for hours and did not arrive to classes on time."

Other students said they're staying put and focusing on the good news - like FAMU's No. 1 ranking in 2006 among historically black colleges and universities by Black Enterprise magazine.

Several said they felt the school's African-American heritage had earned it an extra measure of financial scrutiny that other Florida universities also deserve.

"I think that we are being stereotyped because we are a (historically black university)," said junior Ashley Jones of Jacksonville. "I will recommend this school to my children. I'm just disappointed that a criminal investigation may occur. (But) I still have pride in my school."

Recent downward trends in admissions, enrollment and retention figures suggest the damage to FAMU's reputation is real.

Last fall's enrollment of 11,927 was the lowest level since 1998. And retention figures show the number of students who remain at the university has been slipping.

News of a criminal investigation could also affect the university's accreditation, which comes up for renewal next year with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Association president Belle S. Wheelan said her organization might be inclined to send its own investigators if there are credible reports of financial mismanagement, but might hold off until the spring when an accreditation team is due to visit. If a criminal investigation is launched, she said, that schedule could be put on hold.

"We would have to allow that criminal investigation to take place first and see what it found, before we did anything," Wheelan said.

The push for a criminal investigation is the culmination of lawmaker frustrations that began simmering earlier this month. Legislators started asking questions about a payroll scandal in which FAMU administrators received hundreds of requests from instructors who said their paychecks were weeks and even months overdue.

Interim president Castell Bryant went before the group to explain that most of the checks had been doled out, yet she could not answer basic questions such as the number of instructors involved. She said there were cases in which administrators could not find paperwork for instructors.

A week and a half later, members of a Senate education committee warned Bryant they would cut FAMU's budget if that's what it takes to clean up the mess.

Then last week, the state auditor general released its draft operational audit for the budget year ending June 2006. It revealed sloppy bookkeeping and financial records management that Bryant was hired 25 months ago to fix.

Among the most alarming findings: FAMU appears to have spent or taken in more than $39-million without the board of trustees' approval. That represents about 10 percent of FAMU's annual budget.

For Gov. Crist, perhaps more than any other political leader, the politics are touchy when it comes to delving into FAMU's financial crisis. The Republican governor sought African-American political support on civil rights matters, and a CNN exit poll estimated he received nearly 20 percent of the black vote in November.

Staff writers Steve Bousquet and Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler contributed to this report. Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 584-5537.