Kristin Klein Wheaton has been the executive vice president for legal affairs at Erie Community College since February of 2011. But while her duties officially include providing legal advice to ECC, its president (Jack Quinn) and trustees, and negotiating union contracts, in fact she runs the college, according the insiders at the three-campus school which is in the midst of a financial crisis.
Ask almost anyone who works at ECC, and they’ll tell you ‘Kristin runs things day to day,’ although they won’t speak on the record out of fear they will be punished for even hinting anything negative about Quinn’s loyal aide who is known as a hard taskmaster and strong Quinn defender.
As an example of her hands-on approach, this newspaper has obtained a copy of a confidential email sent by Wheaton to William Reuter, ECC’s chief administrative and financial officer, and copied to Michael Pietkiewicz, ECC senior vice president for operations, reminding Reuter to make sure to remind staff to document all conversations they have with state auditors and save it while still fresh in the audit folder.
Wheaton told Reuter in the email, dated Feb. 27, 2015, that she hadn’t seen any entries in the audit file “since two weeks ago. I know Joe Stewart has had a number of meetings. Copies of documents provided are also supposed to be loaded to the shared drive. It will help tremendously to have this information if a written response needs to be crafted to the final report once it is issued.” (For the record, Stewart is vice president of information technology at ECC.)
Sources have told this reporter that Wheaton has been dogging state auditors the entire way as they conduct the first audit of the school in 20 years, a report that State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office now says won’t be ready until August at the earliest. Earlier this year, the state had predicted a June release.
In April, we reported that Wheaton was singled out in a federal lawsuit by the school’s former Human Resources director alleging age discrimination and other abuses suffered under Klein Wheaton’s direction. Wheaton, who earns more than $110,000 at ECC, heads the college’s $300,000-plus legal staff in addition to running the college and running interference for the often absent Quinn who has extensive off-campus business dealings.
Quinn, Wheaton and other ECC officials will face questioning this week from members of the Erie County Legislature’s Enrichment Committee, headed by Kevin Hardwick. The session is scheduled in the legislature chambers at 3 p.m. on Thursday (June 18) and is likely to include tough questions about labor negotiations on unsettled contracts, the school’s two straight years of tuition increases, and dwindling reserve that threaten ECC’s Middle States accreditation.
While the legislature is expected to approve the budget sent over by County Executive Mark Poloncarz pretty much as is later this month, ECC officials can expect a tough grilling from lawmakers who are clearly sensitive to the reports of the school’s financial problems with no real boost in the county subsidy likely until next year at the very least.
Hardwick, a member of the legislature’s GOP majority, has been outspoken on the need to develop a long-term plan for ECC that would include an increase in funding from the county which is currently only subsidizing the school at 15.6 percent of its budget, a far cry from the more than 26 percent of budget that should be provided to the community college. As a result, ECC is using tuition increases and reserve funds to keep the college afloat, a long-term recipe for failure.
Meanwhile, negotiations are continuing with the union representing faculty and professional staff who have been without a contract since 2009, and while there has been progress, questions remain on how the school and the county will be able to pay for an agreement if one can be reached.
Andy Sako, president of the Faculty Federation, said his union represents about 400 full-time faculty and another 800 part-time professional staff, and that numbers have not yet been discussed in the ongoing labor talks although he characterized the negotiations as between “50 percent and three-quarters done,” with Quinn pushing for an agreement by July.
A labor agreement, assuming he has the money hidden away, is just what County Executive Poloncarz would most certainly like in this, an election year. Lots of questions surround ECC’s future but so far, anyway, not too many answers about how to fix everything that’s broken at the more than 12,000-student community college, a vital training ground for the local workforce.