New COD board chairwoman outlines reforms to come

Sweeping reforms enacted by the just-installed College of DuPage board were only the beginning, according to new board Chairwoman Kathy Hamilton.

In the coming days and weeks, she said, the board hopes to:

• Form a transition team to examine the operation and governance of the Glen Ellyn-based community college that has faced months of criticism about its spending practices and is the subject of both state and federal investigations.

• Institute various policy changes, including one that would limit how much money trustees can be reimbursed for certain expenses.

• Consider assigning committees to examine the inner workings of the college, including its upscale Waterleaf restaurant. COD administrators and trustees spent more than $19,000 at the restaurant during a 16-month stretch from September 2013 to December 2014.

• Consider increasing the number of board meetings, now one a month, until most of the necessary reforms are put in place. Hamilton also wants to create board committees with responsibility for expertise in certain topics.

“We need to fix the problems and then have all of these investigations go away so we can continue providing world-class education to our community,” Hamilton said in a wide-ranging 90-minute interview with the Daily Herald.

Meanwhile, school President Robert Breuder — the person at the center of the controversy — is on medical and administrative leave, and is scheduled to retire in March 2016.

On April 29, he went on medical leave that would run through July 22 for a “serious health condition.”

The next day, Hamilton and members of the slate she put together led a 4-3 vote during their first meeting to put Breuder on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation into the policies, personnel, practices and finances of the college.

“We have problems,” Hamilton said. “We're going to evaluate them. We're going to fix them. And we're going to move on.”

Trustee Joseph C. Wozniak, now part of the three-person minority on the board, said he'd be willing to work with Hamilton and her allies if their proposals are “reasonable,” but not “if she's doing it just to assert her power.”

“She said before (that) she wants to try to work with the other board members,” Wozniak said. “But it's like they're stealing the show, and we've had no input on anything.”

Much like the April 30 meeting called by the new board, Wozniak said he didn't have any input into the agenda for a special meeting planned for Thursday night.

Trustees Erin Birt and Dianne McGuire didn't respond to requests for comment.

The scrutiny of COD started last summer, when Breuder lost a $20 million state grant after one of his emails — intimating that the school should create a reason why it needed the money — was made public.

The controversy intensified in January when members of the prior board approved a $762,868 buyout package for Breuder. That was followed by state and federal authorities launching criminal investigations.

Hamilton, who cast the only vote opposing Breuder's buyout deal, endorsed three candidates for the April 7 election. All were elected to the seven-member board.

One of them, Charles Bernstein, said voters sent a clear message.

“We can't just talk about it,” Bernstein said. “We've really got to make changes here.”

The new voting bloc on April 30 hired two new law firms, authorized the state to conduct a performance audit of the college and assigned a law firm to spearhead the internal investigation.

As part of the internal probe, COD officials will examine how money is being spent at the Waterleaf, the school's upscale 130-seat restaurant, which lost more than $536,000 last year. The restaurant also became a symbol of excess at COD when it was revealed that school administrators and board members ate and drank regularly there.

Trustee Frank Napolitano, a Hamilton ally, said the investigations will help the board decide its next steps. “All of that will lead us to many of the next action items that we'll need to take,” he said.

Meanwhile, Hamilton said she plans to make an announcement soon that will provide the details about her transition team.

One issue the team is expected to weigh in on is whether committees should be formed to examine various aspects of the college.

Hamilton, for example, said she's contemplating starting a committee to examine the Waterleaf and the college's six-room Inn at Water's Edge hotel. The panels would consider such factors as enrollment, demographics and education requirements to determine whether the enterprises should be maintained, modified or closed.

“We have to do the right thing the right way,” she said. “And I'm sure we're going to come up with a great conclusion ... one that makes sense for the college in the long run.”

At the same time, Hamilton said the board can't close the Waterleaf simply because of what happened there in the past.

“We'd be displacing people that have their livelihood dependent on that (restaurant),” she said. “We may be cutting off someone's education in the hospitality field. We have to be responsible. We are required to do our due diligence, and we're going to do that.”

In addition to the reforms already adopted, the board is expected to consider a number of policy changes. They include adopting a $335 annual cap on how much a trustee can be reimbursed for travel or entertainment charges when attending conferences.

As for the hiring of new law firms, Hamilton said she didn't want to keep using COD's prior attorneys because they were part of the old culture on campus.

“If you pick individuals that are a part of that culture, you're not going to be able to get outside of it and get a perspective that is objective,” she said, noting that the law firms' contracts end in four months and ultimately the board hopes to solicit bids for legal services.

“It was our desire to kick-start it (the internal investigation) and hit the ground running,” Hamilton said. “So we put them (the law firms) in place.”

With all the issues the college is dealing with, Hamilton said she might have the board meet more than once a month.

“I think that's a definite possibility,” she said. “That's something that I am contemplating very seriously, especially with all these changes.”

Hamilton said she hopes these efforts will improve the school's reputation with state lawmakers and the public.

“We need to fix the structure — fix the culture as much as we can,” Hamilton said. “Put in a president that is calming, intelligent, and provides the kinds of leadership we need. I think people will respond to that.”

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