Did Colorado Mountain College let local paramedic program go?
SUMMIT COUNTY – Former Colorado Mountain College (CMC) president Cynthia Heelan said her $350,000 retirement package is “a modest gift,” but a Summit campus administrator who recently resigned in protest said the money could have saved a now-defunct paramedic program.
In addition, former Breckenridge campus division director Richard Flor, who recently resigned, said Heelan and the college’s board of trustees were “out of touch” and let the college’s unique wilderness paramedic program needlessly dissolve.
Heelan announced Oct. 31 she was retiring, citing health concerns. The 59-year-old served as CMC president for nine years, the longest term of any CMC president.
CMC’s elected Board of Trustees agreed Nov. 15 to pay Heelan $35,000 per year for the next 10 years, as well as provide her medical coverage for the next six years, or until she finds other employment. According to board trustees, who all approved the retirement package but pointed to other trustees when asked who produced the idea for the compensation, the $350,000 was a way to reward Heelan for her success at the college.
“It’s not an unusual thing,” Heelan said Thursday. “I don’t think it’s exorbitant. It’s a modest gift. The board is always conservative and concerned about the taxpayers.”
Trustees, deans and instructors credit Heelan with developing CMC into a technology-savvy, data-driven institution that expanded its facilities and programs greatly during her tenure. By the time she retired, Heelan received a $174,000 salary, plus a $51,000 stipend that covered a car and housing allowance, as well as $15,000 to invest for retirement.
But some trustees and college personnel said the gift was too high. Heelan and the trustees were often at odds, they said. Heelan and other administrators said there will always be tension between executives and boards.
“I’ve worked with 16 different board members,” Heelan said. “Everyone comes on with goals, and sometimes there’s a difference of opinion. It takes time to work together as a team. That’s the nature of elected officials.”
Three new board members, including Summit County’s representative Dick Bateman, won elections last year. Bateman said the trustees should take responsibility for the retirement package and that Heelan had a challenging, high-level job.
Flor said he had a different perspective on Heelan’s leadership style. He said the president was only interested in hearing about the college’s successes, not where it needed improvement.
“The president’s style was one in which she wasn’t interested in hearing about problems,” Flor said. “It’s important to build off positives, but sometimes your leverage points for improvement come from looking at what’s not working.”
Flor said the Summit emergency medical service (EMS), wilderness paramedic and fire science programs are in trouble. He said he tried to bring this to the attention of CMC’s upper management, but instead of support, found retribution. Flor resigned, effective Oct. 31.
“I naively believed the college was here to serve its constituents,” Flor said. “It’s difficult to prove “constructive discharge’ (being forced to resign), but it really wasn’t my choice.”
Flor said CMC’s emergency medical service programs from the beginning haven’t met state certification guidelines. The program needs more instructors and more support to meet the criteria of the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment, which oversees such education programs, he said.
Earlier this year, long-time EMS instructors Tom Resignolo and Jim Repsher resigned. The Summit campus folded up its wilderness paramedic program, the only one of its kind in the country, although the plan is to reopen it in Eagle County next year.
Firefighters-in-training have had problems, too. CMC’s fire science course offerings aren’t as frequent as many students would like. The county’s fire districts employ “residents,” who are required to complete fire science degrees. Some students are enrolling in courses at Red Rocks and Pikes Peak community colleges on the Front Range.
“I think there’s some people that wonder whether Heelan or the board really ever knew what was going on,” Flor said. “It’s their job to know what was going on.
“Heelan said some good things about becoming a learning college and learning organization – quality improvement,” he said. “But she didn’t know how to implement it; she didn’t surround herself with people who knew as much about it as she did. Consequently there was a lot of talk, but very little action becoming that organization.”
Heelan said Flor’s resignation was a personnel matter and declined to comment.
Heelan said complaints that money for her retirement package could have been used to hire additional instructors were somewhat inaccurate. The $35,000 a year would cover one full-time position, she said. Heelan added that the revenue growth (de-Bruceing) measure approved by voters in 2001 is helping the college retain instructors by using excess tax collections to augment salaries. Otherwise, the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR) would have required the college to return excess tax collections to property owners.
The CMC board of trustees met Friday and ordered the formation of two committees, one to rewrite the college’s strategic plan, and another to use the plan to search for a new president.
“They’re looking at a golf turf management program, and they let the wilderness paramedic program slip away,” Flor said. “There’s clearly a leadership void at the top, and I don’t think it’s going to change.”
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