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Questions Linger Over Higher Ed Pay Raises

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(Courtesy Department of Social Services)

(Courtesy Department of Social Services)

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By DAVE COLLINS, Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ The two top executives of Connecticut’s new university and community college system are gone, but the fallout from secret pay raises continues for Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who hand-picked both officials to lead a high-profile effort to streamline higher education.

Republican lawmakers are calling for legislative hearings and questioning what administration officials knew about the raises and when. Staffers with the Board of Regents for Higher Education are trying to minimize any disruptions to the schools and reform efforts while limiting damage to the system’s reputation.

“We hope not to lose a beat in all this because what we’re after is so important,” said Lewis Robinson, chairman of the Board of Regents. “Our aim is to regain our momentum as quickly as possible.”

In what has become one of the most high-profile controversies of Malloy’s 21-month-old administration, the Board of Regents revealed last week that President Robert A. Kennedy had awarded $250,000 in pay raises to 21 board staff members over the past year without the board’s knowledge or its required approval. Kennedy and Executive Vice President Michael Meotti resigned on Friday.

“It’s probably the biggest problem that has cropped up in state government since Gov. Malloy took office,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, senior adviser to the governor. “The governor accepts the fact that mistakes happen and that problems crop up in state government. His job is to make sure … they are dealt with swiftly, and that’s exactly what he did.”

Malloy denounced the raises last week and urged the Board of Regents to address the issue immediately. Before he resigned, Kennedy suspended the raises pending a review by a new panel on whether the increases were warranted. Kennedy said the staff members deserved the raises because they had taken on more responsibilities in the consolidation of different higher education systems.

The board tapped former University of Connecticut President Philip Austin to temporarily oversee the college system while officials search for a permanent successor to Kennedy.

Beginning operation in July of last year, the Board of Regents was originally proposed by Malloy as a way to streamline the way Connecticut runs its colleges and universities. The group governs four state universities, 12 community colleges and a public, online school, excluding the University of Connecticut.

Board officials say they have identified $5.5 million in savings in the consolidation, which paved the way for hiring 47 new faculty and student support positions. They launched three manufacturing centers to help better prepare students for the workforce. And they said they’ve made it easier for students to transfer to other schools in the system.

House Republican Leader Lawrence Cafero of Norwalk and Senate Republican Leader John McKinney of Fairfield have been calling for the legislature’s higher education committee to hold hearings on the raises. Occhiogrosso said Malloy found out about the raises just over a week ago and acted swiftly.

“How in a time of fiscal crisis … do you miss a quarter of a million dollars in raises being given out?” Cafero said. “How do you not know that?”

Occhiogrosso accused Cafero and McKinney of trying to score political points shortly before the November election. He said Malloy doesn’t regret recommending Kennedy for the job and believes Kennedy is a “smart, thoughtful” guy who made a mistake.

Majority Democrats who lead the higher education committee said Monday that they don’t believe hearings are needed at this point because the Board of Regents already is taking action.

Gary Rose, a political science professor at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, said the pay raise controversy has had a big impact on Malloy’s higher education efforts and become campaign fodder for Republicans.

“I think it has a devastating effect on any kind of reform effort,” Rose said. “He doesn’t have his lieutenants in place to execute his plan. So I think that’s problematic for him.”
Cafero pledged to continue looking into the raises.

“I hope no one believes that just because Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Meotti resigned and Mr. Austin was appointed that this is over,” Cafero said.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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