A $20,000 study will soon be in the works to examine the fiscal opportunities presented to Palomar College if it offers Supplemental Retirement Plan packages to its aging faculty base and administrators.
And the VP of Human Resources for the community college, Lisa Norman, recently announced she would be leaving the school at the end of July—but not before landing a $92,000 no-bid contract to maintain the college as a freelance client for the consulting firm she will now run full-time. These were two topics loaded into the back-end of the Palomar College Governing Board’s July 9 meeting, initially placed on the consent calendar.
Items on the consent calendar do not receive discussion by governing bodies and are voted on as a grouping. As its name implies, the items placed on it are generally ones with a broad basis of agreement among elected officials.
At the July 9 meeting, though, Trustee Nina Deerfield said she believes items like these should not be placed on the consent calendar.
“I don’t like that sort of complicated issue being on a consent calendar at all. It just it makes me uncomfortable,” said Deerfield, speaking about the looming end to Norman’s tenure. “I don’t think we should be asked to vote on anything that has that needs more information given to us. So I said this before and I am just standing by that.”
Deerfield further asked for the $20,000 contract given to the firm BrightPath Consulting Services to study the potential benefits of offering of early retirement packages to Palomar College faculty and administration to be tabled. She sought to have the item moved for further discussion at the next Board meeting. Deerfield quipped, too, that money like that could pay for live streaming of Governing Board meetings, a proposal which was shot down at the Board’s previous meeting.
“So, I really don’t think that should be on consent either, because we haven’t really discussed that,” said Deerfield.
Palomar College President Joi Lin Blake, responding to Deerfield, said that 85 to 87 percent of the college’s budget goes toward paying personnel.
“So, that doesn’t give us much wiggle room in terms of making reductions to the budget without touching personnel,” said Blake.
According to Blake, 30 percent of the college’s faculty base is currently of retirement age and over 50 percent will be in the next five years. Further, Blake said that administrators could be considered for a retirement plan, as well.
But Blake added that it depends on what the study eventually shows. An expedited timeline for completion of the study exists because the topic will be up for discussion at the Board’s budget retreat in the next couple of months.
According to Brightpath’s website, it has an expertise in healthcare plan design and procurement, retirement plan designs, as well as pension and executive benefits planning.
The Board eventually voted on the proposal for Brightpath to do a study, with only Deerfield dissenting, passing 4-1.
After that item passed, Teresa Laughlin—co-president of the Palomar Faculty Federation union and an economics professor—also chided the Board for putting the departure of Lisa Norman and the $20,000 retirement plan study on the consent calendar.
“We’re told repeatedly the district is in financial distress and does not have money for anything, such as livestreaming board meetings, etc.,” said Laughlin. “Yet, it seems to find a lot of money for consultants. An institution’s budget illustrates the institution’s priorities and values.”
According to California Secretary of State documents, Norman incorporated her firm Universal Personnel Services Inc. in November 2018. In a list of contracts published as part of the consent calendar voting process, Norman’s firm will receive a $200 per hour, not to exceed $92,000 contract. And it is set to begin immediately after she leaves her current position at Palomar College, expiring at the end of June in 2020.
It is an “Agreement to provide labor negotiations, specific human resource related projects, group or individual classification and compensation analyses and review, professional development training and investigations,” according to the list of contracts placed on the consent calendar for a vote.
Because the contract is less than $92,600, the college did not have to open up the bidding process to other prospective bidders, according to the college’s business services website.
The contract line item to procure Brightpath’s services shows that Norman requested the firm as a vendor. Brightpath’s website, in turn, has a testimonial from Norman on it praising the firm’s services.
In her remarks to the Board, Laughlin expressed concerns about the examination of early retirement packages by the college, particularly about the impact it could have on the campus on campus morale.
“I understand there’s a desire to give incentives for people nearing or at retirement age to retire early to reap possible savings, but the chaos that ensues with such a large number of faculty, staff and administrators leaving has to be considered in any decision regarding our college,” said Laughlin. “What Palomar College needs now is steady leadership to get us through these troubling times. We needn’t pursue risky ventures.”
Editors Note: The story has been updated to include Laughlin’s remarks to the Board and further explanation/information regarding the contract with Norman’s firm.
Steve Horn is a San Diego, CA-based reporter covering Escondido and San Marcos. He works in a full-time capacity for The Real News Network, an online broadcast news outlet, covering climate change. He has worked as a staff investigative reporter for the publications Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News and as an investigative reporter for the climate news website DeSmog.com. Contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.