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Guilford College picks an experienced college leader to be its interim president

GREENSBORO Guilford College will bring in an experienced college administrator to serve as its interim president while it seeks a new permanent leader.

The private Quaker college announced Monday that Carol A. Moore will be the college’s interim president starting Saturday. Moore has been president of three small liberal arts colleges — two in Vermont and one in South Carolina — over a 40-year career in higher education.

Moore will take over for Jane Fernandes, who has been Guilford’s president since 2014.

In an interview Monday, Ed Winslow, a Greensboro attorney and chairman of the college’s Board of Trustees, said Moore is “calm, assured and projects an air of confidence and competence.”

“We have got to have a president to get us through the next 30 days and to get us through the pandemic,” Winslow said. “And we found a great one.”

Moore has led colleges for most of the past two decades, and her last two presidencies have put her in charge of colleges undergoing major transitions.

A former high school teacher and college biology professor, Moore first became a college president in 1998. She led Lyndon State College, now part of Northern Vermont University, until 2011.

Burlington College in Vermont hired Moore as interim president in late 2014. The beleaguered school, burdened by debt and on probation with its accreditor, closed a year and a half after she arrived.

In a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education later that year, Moore blamed the college’s demise on its earlier decision to buy land it couldn’t afford to expand the campus.

Moore was president of Columbia College, a private women’s college in South Carolina, for three years until she resigned in March for family and health reasons, according to a college news release. During her tenure the college explored whether to admit men to its on-campus undergraduate day program. Columbia ultimately decided to do so.

Moore holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Montclair State University in New Jersey and a doctorate in marine biology from Northeastern University in Boston.

At Guilford College, Moore will take over a 1,700-student school that faces several simultaneous challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The most pressing issue is financial. The college lost significant revenues this year when it refunded some student housing and dining fees after closing campus in March and by canceling the Eastern Music Festival, which fills the campus in the summer.

In early April, Guilford furloughed about 130 full-time and part-time employees — slightly more than half of its non-faculty staff members. Two months later, the college laid off 52 employees and said it wouldn’t fill 34 vacant positions. The job cuts amounted to roughly 15% of the college’s workforce and was the first major personnel reduction at the college since 2015.

More than 900 Guilford College alumni have signed a recent letter to trustees urging the college to consider cutting the pay of administrators making more than $100,000.

Gail Webster, a chemistry professor and co-president of Guilford’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said the college needs to find other ways to address its budget issues besides laying off faculty and staff.

“We are hoping for a strong financial manager,” Webster said of Moore. “But we can’t handle any more cuts. We’ve been cut to the core. To serve the students well, we can’t cut anymore.”

Sixty-nine Guilford employees remain furloughed until at least Friday. Guilford spokesman Roger Degerman said Monday he didn’t know when those employees would be returning to work.

Winslow, the Board of Trustees chairman, said Monday that Guilford, like many other small private colleges, is bracing for an enrollment decline of at least 10%. Some students plan to take the year off because they don’t want to be on a college campus during a pandemic.

About 40% of Guilford’s students play varsity sports, and the Old Dominion Athletic Conference’s decision last week to postpone fall and winter sports to the spring semester might prompt some student-athletes to stay home or consider another school.

The financial pressures on Guilford, Winslow said, “are as astonishing as anything I’ve seen.”

Moore, in a statement Monday, said she is committed to taking “prudent, timely action” to serve the college’s best interests.

Moore’s hiring spells out a different future for Fernandes than what the college announced in June.

A month ago, Guilford said Fernandes would serve as president until July 1, 2021. On Monday, however, the college said Fernandes will step down as president Friday and will take a sabbatical during the 2020-21 academic year. She plans to return to the college in fall 2021 as an English professor.

These sorts of moves from the president’s office to the faculty ranks are common in higher education, where many college leaders also hold a dual appointment as a professor.

Winslow said Monday that trustees had intended to hire an interim president to replace Fernandes before she departed next summer, but the board wasn’t initially sure if the search for a temporary leader would takes a few weeks, several months or longer. In any case, Winslow said Fernandes planned to stay as president until the board could find a replacement.

“There has not been some catastrophic event that has happened since the (June) announcement that has caused us to change our minds” about Fernandes’ term as president, Winslow said.

Guilford’s trustees will meet later this week to start looking for a permanent president. The college said that search will take several months.

Some N.C. school districts switch to remote-only start, Guilford to decide today

GREENSBORO What a difference a couple of weeks make.

When the Guilford County Board of Education last met to consider options for reopening schools, two of North Carolina’s three largest school systems had announced plans to bring back students on a rotating basis using a combination of classroom and virtual instruction.

Since then, both of those districts — Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg — have switched their plans to remote learning.

Meanwhile, the fourth and fifth largest school districts, Cumberland County and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, have also settled on starting the academic year remotely.

Among the school districts geographically surrounding Guilford County, just two plan on using a hybrid of in-person instruction and remote learning when school begins on Aug. 17. The rest will start with remote learning or begin with in-person orientation followed by remote learning.

Some of those districts will delay in-person instruction just a few weeks. Others are calling for longer or more open-ended delays.

“Without millions more in funding, without extra staff and without resources that are well beyond what we have the means to acquire, I think it best that we delay in-person learning for the first nine weeks of school,” wrote Angela Pringle Hairston, the superintendent for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, in an open letter. “We need more time for this virus to subside.”

Guilford school board members are expected to vote on a reopening plan at their virtual meeting today. At their last meeting, Superintendent Sharon Contreras told the board she would like to see the district use remote learning for the first five weeks.

That would allow time for schools to better prepare for reopening and reassure parents about the safety precautions in place.

One proposal from Contreras — and her preference — is to have either grades K-8 or K-9 receive in-person instruction while having high school students take online courses. That would, in turn, free up classroom space in high schools for the lower grades to move in and spread out.

However, Contreras said she’s not sure if the district has the staffing needed to make that happen.

The idea of keeping high school students home has raised concerns for a few school board members as well as students and parents.

“I feel like I don’t learn anything from online learning,” said Ryan Stevenson, a sophomore at Northwest High School. He said trying to take Spanish virtually has been especially difficult. “I’d like to go back to school if that’s possible.”

The other two scenarios Contreras is proposing involve a mix of virtual and in-person instruction. In one scenario, a group of students would be in class on Mondays and Tuesdays and another group would attend Thursdays and Fridays. The days not spent in school would be devoted to distance learning.

In another scenario, two groups would attend on alternate weeks. So one group would attend a week and learn remotely the next week.

Todd Warren, the president of the Guilford County Association of Educators, said he likes starting school with five weeks of remote learning.

“That was a big relief to our members as well,” he said.

Warren is supporting a petition that calls on North Carolina to maintain at least current funding and staffing levels for schools and bring the North Carolina Association of Educators into conversations on what should be required for reopening.

He said he would also would like to see the district set specific conditions that would have to be met for schools to reopen.

“The decisions we make are going to be life-and-death decisions right now and we need to take the time to do it right,” he said.

An interesting article in today's paper

Going solo: The top college football conferences had said they should work together. Not now. Page B1

Unpaid bills drive N. Carolina families to financial brink

RALEIGH — As many as one million families in North Carolina have fallen behind on their electric, water and sewage bills, threatening residents and their cities with severe financial hardship unless federal lawmakers act to approve more emergency aid.

The trouble stems from the widespread economic havoc wrought by the coronavirus, which has left millions of workers out of a job and struggling to cover their monthly costs. Together, they’ve been late or missed a total of $218 million in utility payments between April 1 and the end of June, according to data released recently by the state., according to data released recently by the state. That’s nearly double the amount in arrears at this time last year.

In some cases, cities that own or operate their own utilities have been forced to absorb these losses, creating a dire situation in which the government’s attempt to save people from the financial brink instead has pushed municipal coffers to their own breaking point.

In Elizabeth City, for example, about 2,500 residents haven’t paid their electric bills on time, according to Richard Olson, the city manager.

The late payments at one point proved so problematic that Olson said he calculated Elizabeth City wouldn’t have enough money to pay for its expenses in July. In response, city leaders requested and obtained a waiver from a statewide order, issued in March, that protects people from being penalized for their past-due utility bills.

The predicament has presented unique budget challenges throughout North Carolina, while illustrating the consequences of a cash crunch plaguing the entire country. State and federal leaders have extended a range of coronavirus relief programs since March to try to help people through the pandemic. But the money is limited and restricted — and it’s not clear whether more help from Congress is on the way — creating a crisis in which the nation’s economic woes are outpacing some of the aid programs adopted to combat them.

“We are entering a phase where the utilities (may) be able to shut off power, but what was propping up people’s economic lives, the unemployment benefits and Cares Act support, won’t be there,” said Paul Meyer, the executive director of the North Carolina League of Municipalities.

The future of that safety-net support — and other federal aid — hangs in the balance as lawmakers returned to work this week in their final sprint ahead of the August recess.

The White House and congressional leaders are split over the contours of the next coronavirus relief package, including the need to extend more aid to cities and states and reauthorize an extra $600 in weekly unemployment payments that were approved as part of the Cares Act in March.

Outside Washington, workers, businesses and government officials nationwide have pleaded with federal lawmakers to renew or expand those programs. Last week, Gov. Roy Cooper urged Congress to act swiftly and adopt a wide array of new federal spending, stressing in a letter that the “actions you take in the next few weeks are vital to our ability to emerge from this crisis. ”

With his state facing its own share of financial duress, Cooper in late March issued a directive sparing residents from losing water and electricity services in the middle of the pandemic. The moratorium also prohibited private and city-owned utilities from imposing late fees or charging people interest on undue balances, and put in place a process in which struggling families can pay the amounts they owe over a six-month period.

Since then, as many as one million residential accounts in North Carolina have fallen behind on their payments and become eligible for disconnection, but haven’t had their utilities shut off as a result of the governor’s order, according to state data.

North Carolina officials cautioned the number is an estimate that may double-count some families, especially if they failed to pay multiple kinds of utility bills on more than one occasion.

Many of the missed payments appear to have affected privately-owned utilities, including major providers such as Duke Energy.

The Charlotte-based company says it is refraining from disconnecting those who do not pay, and it has more than 130,000 customers in North Carolina who are 60 days behind on their bills.

But the overdue balances have proven even more troublesome for North Carolina cities that own and manage their own utilities. These municipalities, which may generate or buy their own power and then sell it to residents, say they have seen sharp declines in revenue that have cleaved deeply into their budgets, creating financial havoc at a time when they’re already struggling to break even.

The situation has been most dire for rural towns such as Red Springs, a Robeson County community of more than 3,000 in the southern part of the state. Nearly 40% of its residents fell behind on their electricity bills just last month, said David Ashburn, its manager. Red Springs purchases its power as part of a local consortium from Duke Energy, so it must front the costs for electricity even when its residents are late with their own payments, compounding the city’s month-to-month budget difficulties.

“There are all kinds of factors that play into the fact you’re not getting what you normally get and what you base your budget on,” Ashburn said.

In Red Springs and throughout North Carolina, city and county leaders have responded to the revenue crunch by halting planned upgrades to their electrical grid.

If people ultimately do not pay what they owe, they may have no choice but to raise their electricity rates to satisfy the financial conditions under the bonds that allow them to operate, said Drew Elliot, the senior governmental affairs liaison at ElectriCities, which represents municipally owned utilities in the state.

Such financial turmoil led the N.C. League of Municipalities and its allies to urge top state officials for weeks to allow the moratorium to expire, and Cooper in recent days has said he will not renew it. Some of the city-owned utilities caution they do not plan to reinstate penalties or shut-offs right away, choosing instead to try to work with residents in need to help them catch up on their payments. But they will face big decisions in the coming weeks if the more than one million North Carolinians behind on their bills are unable to resume making payments.