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Bergen exec Donovan blasts BCC president Ryan

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: With a graduation rate of 12.6% and a dropout rate three times that amount, Bergen Community College President G. Jeremiah Ryan has nerve blaming county budget cuts, especially given the nearly $100,000  he rang up in personal expenses — mostly for booze, County Executive Kathleen Donovan wrote in a blistering letter to the embattled administrator.

BCC President G. Jeremiah Ryan, Bergen Executive Kathleen Donovan

Donovan responded directly to Ryan after a local newspaper published a letter in which he threatened that a $5 million reduction in county funding could “compromise quality” at the school.

“What ‘quality‘ are you concerned about compromising?” the county executive snapped. “The only ‘quality‘ you have defended is your choice of high-priced watering holes.”

Ryan claimed the tippling was to help raise funds for the school. But an examination by Donovan’s office, the results of which were shared with CLIFFVIEW PILOT , show Ryan feting trustees, staff and politicians — none of whom are significant contributors.

Donovan says this is just one reason why she has pushed for greater oversight of the college’s spending practices, something both Ryan and the Board of Trustees have resisted.

Elected to office after promising to curb runaway spending, Donovan was at odds with Ryan from the jump. That put her in the same company as the students and faculty at BCC — but not the board.

As CLIFFVIEW PILOT reported exclusively, the BCC faculty cited wasteful spending — including the bar tabs — as reason for a 92-26 “no confidence” vote against Ryan in advance of a June 1 meeting at which the board refused the group’s demands that he resign. ( SEE: BCC faculty approves ‘no confidence’ vote against Ryan )

Ryan last year avoided censure by the faculty, which instead OK’d a memorandum of agreement aimed at resolving the differences on both sides. The official tally was 118-51 in favor of the MOA. ( SEE: BCC faculty reaches agreement with Ryan )

The booze bashes came after faculty members went public about Ryan’s spending practices, including bonuses for his staff following cuts in wages and hours for those in work-study programs.

The faculty union also was upset over three appointments they said Ryan made without a search committee, as required by the Middle State Commission of Higher Education and the State of New Jersey ( SEE: ‘No confidence’ vote pending )

Until last summer, students were allowed to work as college employees up to 20 hours a week. It was cut to 15 hours, as was the wage — from close to $12 to the minimum wage of $7.75. Several of those affected are single mothers.

Ryan said federal guidelines that limited how much a student could earn per semester force the school‘s hand. However, students reviewed the federal guidelines and couldn’t find such a requirement. This at first left all of those who‘d reached the threshold out of work, according to letters sent to the students.

However, an undetermined number of those who immediately consulted the school’s Career and Transfer Center were able to keep their jobs.

Without acknowledging any of the controversy, Ryan in his published letter insisted the 24-percent county funding cut “could set Bergen Community College, the state’s largest community college, back more than a decade.”

As Donovan noted, Ryan blamed tuition hikes, faculty pay deferments and the county cuts for BCC’s financial troubles while “not reducing one dollar of administrative overhead.”

One construction project alone had 71 change orders, she said.

Donovan called Ryan’s letter a “rant” that was “disingenuous at best and certainly irresponsible,” as well as “an affront to every student, their families, faculty and Bergen County taxpayers.

“It reflects hubris but not 21st century reality and the true needs and the mission of Bergen Community,” she added.

It also fails to consider that BCC is under-performing in four key categories, including its graduation and dropout rates, the county executive wrote in her letter to Ryan.

“This is not a money issue,” she added. “It’s a question of leadership.”

“While you continue to resist my administration’s efforts to bring transparency and accountability to the college, you allowed a senior college administrator to take a leave of absence last year to become County Administrator (and former County Executive McNerney’s political attack dog) and then, after Bergen County voters rejected the McNerney administration’s policies, welcomed back that administrator with open arms.

“You attempted to keep Bergen Community a revolving door for political hacks by pushing to hire defeated Democrat candidates. These irresponsible actions were blocked by your Board at the urging of my incoming administration. Where was your concern for student tuition and faculty pay deferment then?”

Ryan himself pointed out that student tuition and fees now account for more than three-quarters of the school’s operating budget.

“In the last 10 years, our state aid shrunk from 22 percent of the budget to 9 percent,” he wrote. “County aid has fallen from 24 percent to less than 11 percent…. Continuing to cut county and state support is a local error of global proportion.”

This would seem to put the onus on him, as the school’s chief administrative officer, to keep non-education-related expenses down, his detractors said.

Yet a budget audit showed actual BCC revenue at roughly $500,000 — a fraction of the targeted goal of $4.8 million.

“Perhaps you can explain why as your expenses go up, foundation revenue goes down?” Donovan asked Ryan in her letter.

“Not once have we challenged anything critical to the college’s core mission. Not once have we intruded on academic freedom and interference as you postured,” she added.

“You cite the need for austerity but fail to note that my administration, working with the Board of Freeholders, has cut more than $30 million from the proposed budget we inherited in January from the outgoing Democrat administration. We have frozen county property taxes and restored integrity to county government. You should take a lesson from these actions and accept the fact that The Days of Wine and Roses are over.”

The trouble began even before Donovan ousted Dennis McNerney as county executive last November:

As first reported in CLIFFVIEW PILOT , Ryan hire Dennis C. Miller angered students and faculty with a private September symposium attended by vendors who do business with the college — each of whom paid $60 to attend. The fee included the purchase of Miller’s book.

Before landing the Bergen job, Miller was president and CEO of Somerset Medical Center in Somerville — the hospital that employed serial killer Charles Cullen, who admitted snuffing 13 patients and trying to kill two others.

Miller, a former Woodcliff Lake resident who now lives in Denville, quickly left after Cullen was arrested, citing personal reasons. He eventually surfaced at BCC thanks to Ryan, who worked with him at the Alman Group. And although he has been a full-time employee at the college the past three years, Miller also has maintained a consulting business: Dennis C. Miller Associates in Morristown.

After CLIFFVIEW PILOT publicized Miller’s special session, Ryan created a position for him as “interim chief development officer.” Miller continued holding symposiums this past semester.

Amid the turmoil, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that the federal scrutiny of the Bergen County Improvement Authority amid a mortgage fraud scandal could extend to the college, given the circumstances: Of $50 million worth of bonds sold during the improvement authority’s biggest year, more than half went toward the purchase of a building for BCC in Lyndhurst, even though the Rutherford campus of Felician College had been offered.

The chairman and former commissioner of the BCIA at the time was Ronald J. O’Malley, who was named last summer in a a 68-count federal mortgage fraud indictment returned against him and a partner of his Ridgewood firm.

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