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March 27, 2014 7:37 am

Commission member had tumultuous exit at NWC

Written by CJ Baker

A former Northwest College employee who faced an investigation — an unfair one, she has said — into allegations she misused college funds has been appointed to the Wyoming Community College Commission.

Gov. Matt Mead appointed Katherine (Kay) Dooley of Powell to the commission last year, and the Wyoming Senate confirmed Dooley on March 4. Dooley says she has no concerns about working with Northwest College officials as a commissioner.

The seven-member commission advocates for all the state’s community colleges, sets their tuition rates, determines how to allocate state funding among them and — in collaboration with the colleges’ boards — prepares budget requests for their operations, construction projects and major maintenance, among other duties.

Dooley, 56, worked at Northwest College for 14 and a half years before agreeing to resign as the institution’s training and development programs manager a year ago.

At the time of her March 2013 resignation, public records say Dooley was on paid administrative leave while college officials investigated whether she had “mismanaged, misappropriated or otherwise misused funds.”

In the nine months following her resignation, Dooley argued to the state’s Unemployment Insurance Division and then a District Court judge that she’d had no choice but to resign because of how poor the work environment had become.

In documents and statements she submitted to those officials between March and November 2013, Dooley said she’d been subjected to an unprofessional “witch hunt” that had taxed her health, that the college had a “documented history of creating a hostile or harassing work environment,” and that “things had not been great at the college for anyone for a long time there.”

Dooley told the Tribune in a March 14 interview that the circumstances of her departure would “absolutely not” make it difficult for her to work with Northwest College in her position on the Community College Commission.

“I have a very good working relationship with Northwest College,” she said. “I have friends and family that work there.”

Dooley said in her service on other boards, she has demonstrated an ability to be neutral and unbiased and that the point is to serve the greater good rather than any personal interests.

“I absolutely have no agenda other than to serve. Absolutely nothing other than to serve,” Dooley said. “And I have not, and will not, publicly say anything to harm Northwest College’s reputation. I think that they are a wonderful college, and I fully support them.”

Mead appointed Dooley to the commission last November and formally notified the media of her appointment on Feb. 28 when his office distributed a list of all of his appointments to state boards and commissions.

Mead spokesman Renny MacKay said the governor was not aware of the situation between Dooley and the college prior to appointing her to the Community College Commission.

Some information became a matter of public record last July, when Dooley filed a petition asking Park County District Court Judge Steven Cranfill to overrule the Wyoming Unemployment Insurance Commission and find she was eligible for unemployment compensation. Dooley argued that although she voluntarily resigned, she had good reason.

A memo filed in the public case says then-Northwest College President Paul Prestwich placed Dooley on paid administrative leave on Feb. 6, 2013, while the college investigated possible violations of policies or the law.

“It has come to our attention that you may have mismanaged, misappropriated or otherwise misused funds,” Prestwich wrote.

Dooley declined to speak to the Tribune about the investigation.

In a May 13 letter to the Unemployment Insurance Commission, Dooley indicated she was told the investigation began with an accusation about “an intentional miscoding of a claim voucher.”

Dooley says in the documents that the college’s finance director had disagreed with her about the need to hire entertainment for the now-discontinued Spring Ag Roundup, while her direct supervisor had told her to go forward with the entertainment.

“I was accused of not following directives given to me verbally by Mr. (Sheldon) Flom,” Dooley wrote in the May 13 letter. “I did not understand that he was giving me directives.”

“I was accused of not following policy that was nonexistent,” Dooley added, saying disciplinary procedure had not been followed.

She also wrote that the “employee employer trust had been irrevocably broken by NWC on how they handled the situation.”

Flom, currently the college’s interim vice president of administrative services, declined to comment.

When asked about Dooley’s departure and whether Northwest College has any concerns about her being on the Community College Commission, an NWC spokesman provided a statement:

“It is not Northwest College’s practice to comment on why employees resign, circumstances regarding their departure or their pursuits following NWC employment,” said Mark Kitchen, the college’s vice president for college relations.

One portion of a March 2013 separation agreement between Dooley and the college, filed in the public case, says they agreed not to make any negative comments about each other.

The college also agreed not to object to Dooley seeking unemployment compensation, and it did not participate in any of the proceedings.

An employee advocate

The Unemployment Insurance Commission upheld a determination by the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services’ Division of Appeals that Dooley was ineligible for benefits. A hearing officer had ruled Dooley “failed to demonstrate the stress she experienced was the result of anything other than customary working conditions” and hadn’t established good cause to leave her work.

Dooley appealed that decision to Park County’s District Court last July and her appeal brief came due in mid-November.

In that Nov. 14 document, Dooley said she had to quit because of a “very unprofessional investigation that in my perception became a witch hunt” and that the way it played out “was close to harassment.”

“Even today, months later I am physically ill, rehashing it all,” she wrote in the November letter.

The case was dismissed in December because Dooley, representing herself, did not properly serve the document on all the parties.

Dooley applied for the open post on the Wyoming Community College Commission on Oct. 31.

Several former colleagues at the college had encouraged her to apply, Dooley told the Tribune, and she decided it might be a good fit. With past experience on other boards, Dooley said she thought she was up to the challenge.

As a former college employee, Dooley said she’ll be able to bring a unique point of view.

“I look forward to advocating for the employees and bringing their perspective to the commission,” she said.

Dooley also noted a long history of higher education in her family, dating back to her great-grandmother’s graduation from Trinity University in 1882.

“Higher education is something that’s been important in my family for generations and I would like to contribute and serve,” she said.

In her application to the governor’s office, Dooley noted her more than 14 years at Northwest and said she understood the challenges faced by community colleges. She also spoke of a passion for education and abilities to speak up and say what what needs to be said and “to see the whole picture and to work toward unbiased decisions for the higher good.”

State Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, wrote a letter of recommendation on Dooley’s behalf, as did Powell Valley Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jaime Schmeiser.

Schmeiser recommended Dooley “enthusiastically and without reservation,” recalling Dooley’s efforts on the board of directors for Mountain Spirit Habitat for Humanity and local economic development boards.

“During that time, I found her to be dedicated, knowledgeable and willing to go the extra mile whenever required,” Schmeiser wrote. She said Dooley helped write grants, assisted with everyday tasks and worked tirelessly.

In her application, Dooley noted past experience volunteering with hospice patients and others in need, suicide prevention efforts and youth livestock sales.

The circumstances of Dooley’s departure from Northwest College were not mentioned in the application.

“I was never asked, and everyone that recommended me knew that I was no longer working at the college, and had I been asked, I certainly would have addressed that,” Dooley told the Tribune. “And I believe that I parted on good terms with Northwest College.”

MacKay, the governor’s spokesman, said Mead reviews individuals’ applications and references before making recommendations — and noted appointees then must be confirmed by the Senate.

“In looking forward it is important to recognize the Community College Commission sets policies and develops strategies for the entire college system, and not specific colleges,” MacKay said in an email. “Governor Mead appoints individuals to the commission who have a background in education, workforce development, business or industry — important backgrounds for overall systemic oversight.”

MacKay noted that the state has general policies governing conflicts of interests and said Mead “expects all appointees to recuse themselves in any instance of a conflict.”

State law says the Wyoming Community College Commission can have no more than four people from the same political party and either three or four members who live in a county with a community college district. The seat applied for by Dooley — vacated by the late Jack Russell of Cody — needed to go to a non-Republican in a community college county. Dooley, a registered Democrat, was the only applicant to meet those criteria, said MacKay.

He said the governor appoints individuals to nearly 200 different boards and commissions.

Members of the Wyoming Community College Commission are paid per diem (no more than $109 for a day-long meeting) and travel expenses.

The commission will hold its next meeting — which will be Dooley’s third as a commissioner — on Monday at Northwest College.

2 comments

  • Comment Link March 27, 2014 9:18 am posted by TN

    A registered Democrat? No wonder she had a hard time in Powell.Democrats in Wyoming are treated like step kids.

  • Comment Link March 27, 2014 11:42 am posted by Griz

    Not really, I like my step kids. ;)

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