A bullet through the front door and into the living room of a Texas community college board member’s house may be the most dramatic in a series of recent controversies at Kilgore College.
Besides the bullet, there have also been secret tape recordings, accusations of unethical land deals, and allegations that improper handling of asbestos allowed the cancer-causing material into the air on campus.
Leaders at Kilgore, a 5,800-student community college in Texas’ Piney Woods, have been in a back-and-forth over policy, procedure, and each other’s characters for many months now. On one side are two members of the Kilgore Board of Trustees who are adamant that other trustees on the nine-member board are giving safe harbor to a dysfunctional administration.
Their latest criticism involves asbestos in college buildings. The college facilities director, Dalton Smith, told the Longview News-Journal in recent days about what he called cover-ups and improper asbestos abatements at the college. Smith said another college official tried to remove asbestos by himself from an auditorium this spring—just days before a public performance by the Kilgore Rangerettes, the college’s famous drill team, which performs to packed audiences across the world.
Smith also secretly recorded conversations with Dan Beach, Kilgore’s director of special projects and the administration’s liaison to the board. In those recordings, which were obtained by the local newspaper, Beach said that to figure out who might have been exposed to asbestos on campus, the college would have to “print a list of every student that’s been here for the last 30 years.”
On the other side of the dispute is long-serving President Bill Holda and his administration. Defenders suggest that his outspoken critics on the board—who are in the minority when it comes time to vote on anything—are trying to micromanage the college and specifically trying to oust Holda by publicly embarrassing him and his administration.
For one of those critics, Kilgore trustee Rev. Brian Nutt, there’s a bullet through his door. It was fired shortly after the recent revelations about asbestos. Nutt, who is also a local pastor, has been an outspoken critic of the administration. It’s unclear who fired the shot or why, but Nutt believes it’s related to his criticism of others at Kilgore.
“You hate to make assumptions, but I don’t believe in coincidences that often,” Nutt said. “And when it happens the night after this huge story comes out in the paper, with audio recordings that go against all of their denials—it has to be tied.”
Nutt believes he was also the target of veiled threats back in early September. That’s when the incoming chairman of the board defended the outgoing chairman, Charlie Hale, against criticism about a land deal Hale had with Holda’s wife. Hale had sold a piece of property to Kilgore College Holda’s wife around the time Hale was joining the board in spring 2008.
Nutt and his fellow outspoken board member, Carlos “Scooter” Griffin, questioned the deal. Griffin suggested the deal was not fully disclosed to the board. At the board meeting, in early September, the then-interim board Chairman James Walker, defended Hale and directed what some considered a veiled threat at Nutt. “Charlie,” Walker said, “was a man that spent over 20 years in the armed service, highly decorated. He fought in Vietnam and he fought in Iraq, was honorably discharged, came home and was, I think, harassed. And I hope his fellow veterans take note of that, particularly the veterans that live here in Kilgore.” At the time, Griffin said he felt Walker was soliciting “ill will and harm.” Walker said those words while looking “straight at Reverend Nutt,” Griffin said in an email at the time.
Over the course of several months, Kilgore representatives did not return messages seeking comment, even those seeking responses on allegations related to perceived threats against a trustee. Last week, college spokesman Chris Craddock said the university was declining to comment on a series of questions that he called “obviously biased and agenda-driven” and based on information from sources who “are very biased against the college administration.” The college did release a statement from Holda about the asbestos allegations. “I have no evidence from any source that would corroborate any of these allegations,” Holda said. “Neither Dalton Smith, KC’s Coordinator of Physical Plant nor any federal investigators have contacted me with specific allegations nor details.” Nutt said the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Environmental Protection Agency were both investigating the asbestos-related allegations.
As part of the president’s annual evaluation this year, Holda, who has been at Kilgore for 39 years, including nearly 19 as president, said 2013 had been one of his most challenging years.
“I have found that a number of board-related issues, as well as a lack of board unity and synchronicity, has been a distraction that has prevented me from focusing on some of the big issues for Kilgore College,” Holda wrote in the self-evaluation he did for the board in January. In Texas, board members are elected and serve six-year terms, although members can also be appointed to boards for unexpired terms and, in a relatively unusual electoral practice, sitting board members’ names do not appear on the ballot, and they are given another term if nobody files to run against them. The entire board’s own overall rating of the president dropped from a 4.7 on a 5-point scale to a 3.8.
Griffin’s comments in the evaluation were expansive and blunt. He said Holda was the best president Kilgore had ever had—but it was time for Holda to retire. The board’s governance, Griffin wrote to Holda, “is severely weakened by your design.” Holda’s critics, for instance, noted that a recent opening on the board was filled by a longtime assistant to Holda.
For their part, the board members seem to be styling themselves after another activist college board member in Texas, Wallace Hall, of the University of Texas System. Hall has sharply questioned the management of that system’s flagship campus in Austin and attempted to investigate it, sometimes on his own. A state legislative panel voted to censure Hall for what critics called his rogue actions. Others view Hall as something of a hero. At Kilgore, board member Griffin has spoken admiringly of Hall. In one email this fall, Griffin said, “The governing board must cease serving the administrator” and instead “serve the institution.”
Walker, the chairman of the Kilgore board, apparently has a different philosophy. During a board meeting this fall, he said, “It is not our job to try to drive the bus. It is our job to kick the damn tires—or kick the bus driver.”
Griffin and Nutt, along with a concerned citizen named Tommy Konczak who has been showing up to board meetings and filing public records request for college documents, question whether the board is doing enough kicking.
“We’re in decline,” Griffin said. “We’ve got entrenched management there—administration—they’re going to do it their way, hell or high water, and it may not make very good business sense, but they’ve got enough votes on the board to rubber-stamp.”
Rey Garcia, the president of the Texas Association of Community College, said a few community college boards in the state now have activist board members who have read about Wallace Hall and model their behavior after his.
“I think you’ve got a case where you have some board members who might be getting into issues of micromanagement that are beyond typical boardmanship and governance questions,” said Garcia.
The association is a voluntary group of the state’s 50 community colleges. Holda is a past president of the association’s board, a sign of his standing in the Texas community college world because it’s a position to which he was elected by his peers.
Garcia said he wasn’t sure about the land deals or asbestos, but he’d heard that some of the outspoken Kilgore board members had been questioning accounting procedures and election practices that are firmly rooted in tradition or state law. At one point, he said some Kilgore board members had been talking about hiring their own attorney for the board, instead of using the advice of the college’s own attorney. That’s unusual, Garcia said, because the board is the college.
“This is obviously a case where you have a good deal of discord among the board members themselves and I think the administration, in some ways, is stuck in the middle,” he said.
At times, the questioning has gotten personal, like when critics raise questions about Holda’s wife’s land deals with Hale, the former board chairman. Tommy Konczak, the local businessman who has taken an interest in Kilgore, noted that Beach—the college official who was secretly recorded talking about asbestos – had also done a land deal with President Holda’s wife. While none of this involves college money, it does raise questions about their relationship outside work and how it might affect the college’s management.
In an unrelated episode, according to public documents Konczak obtained, the Texas Rangers investigated allegations of malfeasance, theft and improper relationships at Kilgore several years ago. They gave their findings to a county prosecutor who then declined to prosecute the case for lack of evidence.
The asbestos whistleblower, Dalton Smith, said in a brief telephone call last week that he didn’t want to give another interview, citing the shot fired at Nutt’s house.