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The N.C. House of Representatives released portions of its budget Thursday, and included several significant changes and some cuts for public higher education.

UNCsystemThe entire budget – which is expected to fill in gaps about whether raises are in store for state employees and teachers – is expected to be released Monday, and voted on by the Republican-led House that week.

Senate Republican leaders have not announced when their version of the budget will be done.

Several significant changes were trotted out by House budget writers this week for the state’s public higher education system.

The House did fund expected growth in the system but also calls for $44.3 million over the next two years in management cuts and would roll out a program that would push academically weak college students into a community college program before gaining entry into the state’s four-year universities.

Drew Moretz, the University of North Carolina system’s vice-president for government affairs, said the House calls for fewer cuts than what Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget proposed.

“It’s a better starting point than what the governor had given us,” Moretz said.

The system as a whole has had $658 million in management cuts since 2008-09, he said.

The House budget would also, for the first time, allow low-income students to get scholarships to virtually attend Western Governors University, an online education program that’s been touted as a low-cost education option by groups like the conservative John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

House lawmakers also want to delay more than 1,000 prospective students from attending the state’s public universities by requiring the UNC system to defer admissions to students who meet admissions standards but don’t have strong academic histories

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An audit released today showed that the state’s Medicaid billing department wasted more than $1.6 million in overpayments for temporary employees and excessive overtime, while its director hired close relatives and associates to work at the public agency.

The former director of the Office of Medicaid Management Information Systems Services, identified by WRAL as Angie Sligh, also arranged from 2011 to 2014 for several relatives, close associates and members of her church to get jobs at the state department, in what appear to be violations of state hiring rules.

Sligh left NC. Department of Health and Human Services in February.

An assistant to Sligh who was working at the state agency through a temporary services agency made $86,852 in the 2014-15 fiscal year, more than any other executive assistant in state government, including the governor’s personal secretary. Another OMMISS employee told auditors she got her job because her sister was the OMMISS director’s hairdresser.

Here’s more about the audit, from WRAL:

Acting off a tip to the auditor’s hotline, investigators found the NCTracks program employed the director’s daughter, ex-husband, ex-husband’s wife and several other family members of employees in the division. It also noted several other hires who regularly attended the director’s church. That included four executive assistants she hired at salaries “exceeding their qualifications,” the audit says.

In addition to excessive wages to underqualified employees and unjustified overtime and holiday pay, the report also noted that the director claimed unauthorized compensatory time that could result in inflated retirement benefits.

In her response to the auditor’s office, DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos said the investigation pointed out an issue “that appears to have existed across state government for a number of years.” The audit, Wos said, triggered the department’s own investigation and the development of better internal policies.

You can read the entire article here or read a copy of the actual audit here.

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Want to offer up your two cents about what type of leader should be at the helm of North Carolina’s public university system? Your chance is here.

The University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors are hosting four public forums around the state in connection with its ongoing search for a new system president. There are also opportunities for the general public to provide feedback via email.

UNCsystemThe purpose is to allow the public to provide feedback for the “leadership statement,” which is essentially the job description that will be used to recruit candidates to lead the 17-campus university system.

Of course, it remains to be seen how much input from the public will be taken into account by UNC Board of Governors, who will make the final decision. The board has said it hopes to have a new president announced this fall.

The 32-member board, all of whom received appointments from the Republican-led legislature, opted in January to dump Tom Ross, the system leader since 2011, in a move speculated to have political roots. No concrete reasons other than a general desire for change were given for dismissing Ross, a former judge and Davidson County president who had been hired to lead UNC when Democrats were in control of the state. Ross will stay in his position until 2016.

The input sessions are in:

  • Asheville: 7 p.m. on May 26, at the Sherrill Center (Room 417) at UNC-Asheville’s campus.
  • Greenville: 7 p.m. on May 27, East Carolina Heart Institute (Room 1415) in Greenville.
  • Durham: 7 p.m. on May 28, Mary Townes Science Complex (Room 1111) on N.C. Central University’s campus.
  • Charlotte: 7 p.m. on June 1, Harris Alumni Center in Charlotte.

Information about parking and directions is provided here, on the UNC system website.

Can’t make it but still want to tell the UNC Board of Governors what you think?

The university system is also operating a survey (click here) through May 22, and taking feedback via email and mail.

You can send your thoughts to uncsearch@northcarolina.edu, or mail to UNC Presidential Search, P.O. Box 2688, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27515.

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UNC President Tom Ross and N.C. Community College President Scott Ralls were joined by two lawmakers, state Sens. Jeff Tarte (R-Mecklenburg) and Josh Stein (D-Wake), at the RTP Headquarters in Durham.

Ross learned he would be out of a job in January, in a surprise move by the UNC Board of Governors to find a new president that many suspect had political motivations. (Ross was hired under a board that of Democratic appointees, the current UNC Board of Governors all received appointments from a Republican-led legislature.)

Ralls announced last week he was leaving his job of 7 years leading North Carolina’s 58-campus community college system for a job leading a Virginia community college.

On Wednesday night, Ross, the UNC president, commented that the loss of Ralls would be significant for North Carolina, and that under Ralls’ leadership, the community college system worked closely with the university system by pushing for articulation agreements for students to easily transfer credits from one system to the next.

“I couldn’t have a better partner than Scott Ralls,” Ross said.

Below is a run-down of some of the more interesting comments made by the four men last night:

—>One of the biggest threats to the university system? Faculty retention, according to UNC President Tom Ross. Faculty saw average salary increases of 1.5 percent over the last seven years, a time period in which inflation has gone up by 10 percent.

Ross said the state’s flagship school, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in particular, is seeing a spike in professors leaving campus. The school typically had 30 out of every 100 professors with job offers end up leaving the campus. That jumped up to 70 percent last year, he said.

“It’s more than just compensation, frankly,” Ross said. “Most faculty are not in it for the money. There are other factors are in the minds and hearts right now that are causing them to look elsewhere.”

—>State Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, reiterated Ross’ point about departing faculty. Stein said he recently spoke with a dean on N.C. State University’s campus that relayed that more staff in his area left last year than in the prior three years. More remarkably, Stein said, those leaving told the dean to not even bother seeking a counter offer.

Stein mentioned a bill he’s filed (but hasn’t been heard), that would restrict state lottery funds to paying for pre-K slots, and providing college scholarships to low-income students.“We have to be creative,” Stein said.

—>State Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican, remarked when he visited chancellors on all 17 campuses after first taking office, he wanted to hear what metrics (SAT scores, class rank, etc.) they thought were the best predictors of whether students would be successful in college.

To his surprise, he heard that the length of time a student spent in pre-K or early education programs was what made the difference.

—>When asked for comment about President Barack Obama’s proposal to make community college free for all students who can maintain high grades, N.C. Community College President Scott Ralls said he wonders if other approaches could help more in North Carolina, where tuition is already low.

The community college student is predominantly made up of low-income students, and more needs to be done to support those students, Ralls said.

Among Ralls’ suggestions were expanding Pell Grants (which are provided to very low-income students) to cover summer sessions, and putting day-care facilities on community college campuses so that parents can work toward their degrees without barriers.

“The greatest challenges our students face is not getting in, but staying in,” Ralls said.

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The UNC Board of Governors hopes to have a new president announced this September.

Joan MacNeill, the chairwoman of the presidential search committee acknowledged in a meeting Monday that keeping to the timeline would be tough.

The board needs to select a head-hunting firm to conduct the search, hold public forums around the state for input about the skills and qualities the next leader of the UNC system should have and then weed through what are expected to be a substantial number of applicants.

“I acknowledge that this is ambitious,” said MacNeill. “It may not work, but we’re going to try for it.”

The presidential search committee met Monday on the campus of N.C. A&T, in Greensboro. Committee members discussed the timeline, and heard an overview about the executive search industry from Al McAulay, a Charlotte-based recruiter.

McAulay is a personal friend of John Fennebresque, the chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, and was not paid for his presentation.

McAuley said the board will have a choice between going with large executive search firms or smaller operations. They should also expect to pay whatever firm they select about a third of the new president’s new salary, as well as any direct costs incurred by the firm during the search firm.

The board of governors hopes to reach out to several search firms in coming days to request bids on conducting the presidential search.

At Monday’s meeting, board members expressed interest in looking for candidates outside of academics, starting by looking at search firms who aren’t primarily focused on finding academic leaders.

“We should see what some of the outsiders say as well,” said Frank Grainger, a member of the UNC Board of Governors.

The need for a new leader of the 17-campus system came after the UNC Board of Governors pushed out its current president, Tom Ross, in January.

Ross, a former Davidson College president and judge, will stay on the job through at least January 2016. Reasons for Ross’ ouster haven’t been fully explained by the legislatively-appointed board, though public speculation has rested on political motives.

Ross was hired in 2010, when the board consisted of appointees of what was then a Democrat-led state legislature. The current board is now made up entirely of appointees selected by a legislature in Republican control.