President Morton’s salary at CFCC among highest in the state

CFCC officials refused to disclose public records, claiming salary survey was “confidential”
President Morton’s salary at CFCC among highest in the state
Published: Aug. 11, 2022 at 11:43 AM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - WECT is digging deeper after trustees at Cape Fear Community College recently awarded President Jim Morton a $30,000 raise. It was his second 10% raise in less than two years, and brought his total salary to $322,584. Because the state salary cap limits Morton’s salary to $166,000, and any additional compensation must be paid by the county, the entirety of Morton’s newly awarded raise will be paid with local tax dollars.

There are 58 community college presidents across the state. Cape Fear Community College trustees reviewed the salaries of other community college presidents before voting on Morton’s raise July 21, but declined to share the salary survey they considered with WECT. For two weeks, the station’s investigative team worked to obtain a copy of the presidential salary document trustees looked over before making this big decision. CFCC officials refused the request.

School Officials Claim Document Confidential

“No salary study was presented in open session,” CFCC Spokesperson Sonya Johnson responded four days after receiving a public records request for the one page document on July 25. Surprised by that response, since the document was likely obtained from the state community college system office and lists the salaries of public officials who are paid with public money, WECT reached out to Board of Trustees Chair Bill Cherry to see if he would provide a copy. After initially indicating he would when he returned from an out-of-town trip, Cherry later changed course.

“I am unable to provide you with the information you requested because the information was presented during Executive Session. All material presented there is considered ‘confidential’,” Cherry said on August 3.

While Trustees can meet in closed session to discuss employee performance, First Amendment experts say that does not mean that documents they review in closed session are also shielded from public view.

“There’s nothing in the open meetings law or the public records law that says a document becomes secret just because it’s used or discussed or disseminated in a closed session,” Amanda Martin, the Supervising Attorney at Duke University Law School’s First Amendment Clinic, told WECT. Martin also serves as General Counsel for the North Carolina Press Association.

“You’re left to wonder, do the people who are refusing access to these records, do they not know the law? Or do they know the law and they’re being difficult or breaking the law?” Martin said of CFCC’s response to the public records request. “The document that you’ve requested and been denied, includes public information about employees at other institutions, which seems utterly appropriate. The public would want to know that information to put in context what’s happening there locally. There’s no law that would make that information confidential.”

With a student body of 14,000, Cape Fear Community College is the 5th largest community college in the state, and spends $110 million a year in public money. Because it’s a public institution that runs with significant amounts of your money, the actions, decisions, correspondence and documents of the people who work there are subject to public records law with limited exceptions. But it is not unusual for officials there to avoid complying with public records law.

History of Non-Compliance

WECT has previously had to hire an attorney to compel CFCC to release itemized legal bills the college refused to disclose. And several years ago, under a previous administration, the college hired a public relations consultant to help them after a series of WECT stories aired questioning the college president’s spending of school money. The consultant advised college officials to use their personal email accounts to discuss sensitive topics at the school to avoid public records law. She also told them to use written communication sparingly, noting “everything leaks.”

WECT is not the only news organization to be denied access to public information by CFCC. WHQR’s Rachel Keith, who has reported extensively on the community college in recent years, expressed frustration over the situation following her most recent attempt to get public records from the college. Keith says the college effectively ignored her requests for salary and other personnel information for Michelle Lee, who makes $120,000 per year as an executive assistant to CFCC President Jim Morton and the Board of Trustees.

“They haven’t provided what Attorney General Josh Stein says that they have to provide me for the personnel records. So anytime when I tried to reach out to the college to confirm something, because I would like my reporting to be accurate and represent their point of view. There’s no comment. Ever,” Keith said.

Keith also experienced issues when she tried to get an explanation as to why the college terminated two long-time employees in charge of compliance in the school’s FTE (full-time equivalent) office. That’s the department in charge of calculating the school’s headcount, which determines how much funding CFCC gets from the state.

While two senior FTE employees were eliminated, Tucker Lee, who is Michelle Lee’s son, got promoted. Tucker got his first full-time job as receptionist at the school in 2013 making $26,000 a year. He’s received 11 raises since then, and is now making $65,000 a year as an Institutional Research Assistant in the FTE office. That’s $10,000 more than one of the FTE Compliance Technicians who just got fired after she worked for CFCC for 20 years, according to salary data from the college.

“I do my due diligence and try to [get answers] because again, this is not a private company. This is a public college that gets taxpayer funded money. So these responses should be out in the open for their employees to see and for the public to see,” Keith added of trying to do her job as a journalist. After months of going through traditional channels for answers without success, Keith reach out to Duke Law School’s First Amendment Clinic for help.

Over their Heads

Anticipating potential delays getting the salary spreadsheet through CFCC, WECT simultaneously reached out to the North Carolina Community College system office to request salary data for all 58 community college presidents. While that office never indicated the document was confidential as the local office had, the state nevertheless had trouble producing it.

The system office has experience significant turnover in recent years. Since NCCC President Scott Ralls departure in 2015, six different people have served as president or interim president of the state community college system. There is currently no one working in the system’s public affairs office. We spoke to several people over a two week period who said they were working to get the document of presidential salaries for us, which the system office is required to maintain.

After failing to get the requested information there, WECT finally reached out to State Treasurer Dale Folwell, who also sits on the Board for the state community college system. With the help of his office, WECT got the document within hours. It confirmed that Jim Morton is now one of the highest paid community college presidents in the state, despite his relative lack of credentials and lack of experience in education.

Besides Morton, who holds a bachelor’s in Marketing from UNC - Wilmington and previously served as Finance Director for the Wilmington International Airport, there are only four community college presidents in the state who don’t hold a doctorate degree. They are all working at schools significantly smaller than CFCC, and the others appear to have spent decades in education. John Buxton, the president of the next smallest institution to have a president without a doctorate, is a Morehead scholar who has a Master’s degree from Princeton, and served as Deputy Superintendent of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction before being hired as president of Durham Technical Community College. According to the state system office, Buxton is paid $258,800 to run the school with 9,000 students.

The only college president making more than Morton who does not serve a significantly larger school is Dr. Garrett Hinshaw, whose latest salary according to the state is $369,911. He runs Catawba Valley Community College, which serves approximately 8,000 students. Hinshaw has been voted the president of the year by the State Board of Community Colleges based on achievements the school has reached under Hinshaw’s leadership. He’s served as president of the school since 2006.

Other than Dr. Hinshaw, the only community college presidents making more than Morton are Wake Technical Community College’s Dr. Scott Ralls (salary $349,047, student body 39,000), Dr. Kandi Deitemeyer of Central Piedmont Community College (salary $332,133, student body 27,000), and Fayetteville Technical Community College’s Dr. Larry Keen (salary $329,693, student body 17,000). Dr. Anthony Clarke, who leads Guildford Technical Community College, is making $229,564, about $100,000 less per year than Morton, despite the fact that Clarke’s school has 3,000 more students.

**Editors note: for consistency, the figures above reflect salaries as of October 2021, the latest data available from the state system office that CFCC trustees relied on when voting on Morton’s raise.**

Local Supplement

Campus trustees can pay their college president more than the state cap allows if they use funding from county tax payers or other local sources. All of the community colleges across North Carolina pay their presidents some kind of supplement, but the amount varies widely.

Dr. James Ross, who leads Pamlico Community College, the smallest community college in the state with 702 students, gets a $5,153 supplement from local sources in addition to his $145,590 state salary. Catawba’s Dr. Hinshaw is at the other extreme, receiving a $214,488 supplement from local sources to add to the $155,423 state allowance for a school of his size.

The average local supplement is $59,000. So the $156,645 supplement New Hanover County tax payers are adding to Jim Morton’s state salary is considerably higher than average.

Exuberant Support

Since Morton’s appointment to president in 2018 without a traditional presidential search process, faculty at CFCC have expressed concern that the man leading their school is less educated and less experienced in the education field than many of them are. They’ve also expressed continued concern about the way Morton runs the college, saying he’s created a toxic work environment. Despite those concerns, Morton has always enjoyed the exuberant support of his Board of Trustees.

While he declined to be interviewed for this story, Trustee Chair Bill Cherry said that, “President Morton had an outstanding review with the Board of Trustees at the May board meeting.” Trustee Zander Guy added that the school has grown from the 7th largest to the 5th largest under Morton’s leadership.

Four of CFCC’s trustees, Jimmy Hopkins, Deborah Dicks Maxwell, Delores Rhodes, and Bill Rivenbark, missed the vote on Morton’s raise. Two others who did vote, Ray Funderburk and Lanny Wilson, had just been sworn in as trustees that day.

Funderburk was the lone dissenting vote against giving Morton a raise. He told WECT he simply didn’t have enough information to justify voting yes to a $30,000 raise. Bill Cherry, Jason McLeod, Jonathan Barfield, Zander Guy, Bruce Moskowitz, Paula Sewell, Bruce Shell, and Lanny Wilson voted in favor of Morton’s raise.

**Editors note: WECT was not present for the vote, and had previously been told and reported the vote was held in closed session. We have since been informed that the vote was held in open session following a closed session meeting.**

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