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Higher ed leaders OK plan to improve NDSCS after negative audit surrounding career academy

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State Board of Higher Education member Kathleen Neset discusses audit findings regarding the North Dakota State College of Science on May 30 in Bismarck. Forum News Service file photo
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BISMARCK — The North Dakota State College of Science will carry out its own improvement plan — with input from the state university system chancellor — in response to an audit that found problems in promoting a career workforce academy still under development, state higher education leaders decided Thursday, June 27.

In a 6-2 vote, the State Board of Higher Education told Chancellor Mark Hagerott to adopt NDSCS’s action plan, implement additional requirements he felt were needed and report back to the board in September on whether the plan has been executed successfully. Hagerott also would have oversight of the action plan.

It's unclear what additional requirements Hagerott will put in place, NDUS spokeswoman Billie Jo Lorius wrote in an email. "The chancellor will need some time to thoroughly review the document to see if there is need for any clarification to the action plan," she said.

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The board's decision was a compromise that came after tied votes failed to pass two other plans.
One of the plans would have allowed NDUS staff to have closer oversight of the NDSCS workforce affairs division and TrainND, the state's workforce training network, though NDSCS President John Richman would have had the final say on decisions.

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Richman opposed that oversight plan and instead suggested NDSCS carry out its own action plan , as the school has done in response to previous audits. If the board had approved the oversight plan, Richman urged members to table the renewal of his contract and not give him a pay raise until the proposed oversight was lifted.

However, the board later approved Richman's contract for two years and a salary of $204,296, a 1.2% increase from last year.

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North Dakota State College of Science President John Richman, center, listens while members of the State Board of Higher Education discuss audit findings regarding his college during a meeting in Bismarck on May 30. Forum News Service file photo

'It does not go far enough'

The hour-plus discussion focused on how the State Board of Higher Education should respond to the state audit of NDSCS released earlier this year. The audit found several problems with the college’s work on implementing a career workforce academy and the performance of TrainND.

The most serious allegations, according to board member Kathleen Neset, included not providing hundreds of emails at the state auditor’s request and Tony Grindberg , NDSCS vice president of workforce affairs and a Fargo city commissioner, failing to disclose on paper that his wife is the chief financial officer for the Flint Group, which NDSCS hired to promote the academy proposed for Fargo or West Fargo.

The audit also found Grindberg was involved in hiring the marketing firm, but board member Don Morton defended Grindberg and NDSCS while opposing the oversight plan.

“They already have oversight,” Morton said, referring to the university system's existing oversight of NDSCS. "Why do we need to create more bureaucracy with an already thin university staff?"

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Neset said the SBHE has a responsibility to oversee North Dakota’s public higher education institutions and hold them accountable. She called NDSCS’s action plan “a standard response to audits.”
“It does not go far enough,” she said of the action plan, adding that the oversight plan adds another layer of accountability needed because of the severity of the audit's findings. “I suggest that the board look at this and determine in your own hearts and your minds, are the actions that happened at NDSCS — is that OK with you?”

Appointing a 'babysitter'

Board member Dan Traynor said he is not aware of any criminal charges filed against NDSCS staff accusing them of failing to send information requested by the state auditor's office. The audit noted potential criminal violations.

“If the auditor believes that that is the case, the auditor has an obligation to refer that to a state’s attorney, not to ask us to indict John Richman or anybody on his campus of a criminal violation in our meeting,” Traynor said.

State Auditor Josh Gallion previously told The Forum he cannot comment on whether he thinks criminal charges should be filed, nor is it his office's job to contact a local state's attorney.

"That responsibility falls to the governing board of the audit client (SBHE) or the Legislative Audit Fiscal Review Committee, ... who can refer any potential criminal activity to the Attorney General," state auditor's office spokeswoman Brianna Ludwig wrote in a statement. "Our job is simply to report what we find."

Traynor said the board needs to hold Richman accountable. “But to appoint the chancellor to be his babysitter, I think is demeaning and I think it is unnecessary,” he said.

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April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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