News: CJ Exclusives

Textile Center, College Merger Likely

State legislature reacts to audit, cuts funding for controversial president

A state-funded education and business development center, which recently came under scrutiny because of duplicative programs and classes with nearby Gaston College, apparently will be absorbed by the college next year.

The N.C. Center for Applied Textile Technology also was questioned about its paltry student population and outside teaching jobs held by its president, Dr. James Lemons. Last month the General Assembly cut funding for his position—which will be eliminated at the end of the year—in half. Lemons denied the budget reduction was related to his job.

“They did not specify what would be impacted,” Lemons said.

But Debbie Clary, R-Gaston, House Appropriations Committee cochairman, said the $62,500 reduction was half of Lemons’s $125,000 annual salary.

“The writing is on the wall,” Clary wrote in an e-mail to Carolina Journal, “only Dr. Lemons can’t seem to read it!”

Last year the Textile Center was audited by the state Community College System, which oversees the center’s budgeting on a “pass-through” basis, but had exercised little real oversight. The Community College System’s jurisdiction over the Textile Center is different from its other schools, which receive funding based on their full-time equivalent students. The Textile Center, organized as a nonprofit institution, has received more than $1.2 million annually since 1996 from the state as a flat appropriation, accounting almost entirely for its budget.

The audit found that the Textile Center carried too few students in too many classes, many of which unnecessarily duplicated those at Gaston College. Auditor Bill Cole recommended that Lemons steer the focus toward support services for the textile industry and reduce classroom instruction. He also suggested a review by the legislature to incorporate the Textile Center into the Community College System’s accountability process.

Cole also recommended that the Textile Center find a way to “maximize both usage and efficiency” of its facility. The center recently completed the construction of a $3.2 million building, funded through the $3.1 billion university and community college bond referendum that voters approved in 2000.

In April this year, State Auditor Ralph Campbell also reported that Lemons “created the appearance of a conflict by accepting outside teaching jobs.” Lemons at the time taught four courses at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, three of which met during daytime hours when the Textile Center was open. He also had taught classes at Belmont Abbey College. Lemons’s contract with UNC-Charlotte ended in December 2003.

But the lack of students and Lemons’s available time to teach elsewhere led lawmakers to believe that some of the Textile Center’s funding could be put to better use. In addition to dropping Lemons’s position, the revised budget also takes $225,000 from the center and moves it to the Hosiery Technology Center at Catawba Valley Community College.

“They are doing an excellent job and lost about $425,000 in federal resources,” Clary said of the Hosiery Center. “They are a partner in education with the (textile) industry, as it should be, versus a totally government-paid entity that is not performing the task for which they were created.”

The budget that passed in 2003 provided an inkling of what was to come for the Textile Center. The bill called for the State Board of Community Colleges to study: the mission and purpose of the center; its duplication of courses and programs; its funding and expenditures; the students and industry it served; and its status in the Community College System. The board was to determine by Oct. 30, 2004, whether the center should remain independent under the system as it is presently; transition into a community college; be dissolved and transfer its property from the state to Gaston County; or “be otherwise administered.”

The Hosiery Center was designated to advise the study, as was the Department of Commerce, representatives of the textile industry, and officials from the College of Textiles at North Carolina State University.

Lemons said he believed the Textile Center was still viable and suffered in the previous audits because of unfair comparisons. He said that although the center holds similar classes, it should not be considered a community college, because much of its resources focused on industry support and training. He said a number of sessions that the Textile Center held at business locations were not considered.

“More classes were excluded from the study than included,” he said.

A CJ investigation last September found that of the 412 classes the Textile Center reported that it conducted for the 2002-’03 school year, 231, or 56.5 percent, had five students or less. Forty-nine classes, or 12 percent, had two students; 73 courses, or 18 percent, recorded only one student. About 25 percent of the classes had 10 or more students.

In addition, some students contacted by CJ said they weren’t in classes that the center reported they attended.

Lemons said that if the Textile Center continued as an independent institution, education and training should not be its primary function. He envisioned the center as a source for new-product development and testing, and as an aid with technical assistance for businesses.

Paul Chesser is associate editor of Carolina Journal. Contact him at [email protected]