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Sunday, 24 July 2016 14:40

Former Lake Michigan College president sues for breach of contract

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BENTON HARBOR — The former president of Lake Michigan College claims she got fired last spring after just four months on the job because she found through an internal assessment that the school lacked compliance with federal rules for student aid.

In a federal breach-of-contract lawsuit, Jennifer Spielvogel alleges the reasons Lake Michigan College trustees gave for her May termination — including that she spent $26,625 in college funds without authorization — are false. She instead was fired because “she ordered an operational assessment of LMC’s financial aid office that revealed ongoing and serious issues reflecting LMC’s non-compliance with federal aid laws and regulations that were embarrassing to existing cabinet members” and to the college’s board chair, Mary Jo Tomasini, according to documents filed with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan.

“The reasons offered by the LMC Board for Dr. Spielvogel’s termination are pretextual because they are not the real reasons for her termination, and not sufficient to support the termination decision, and are false,” Spielvogel claims in her lawsuit filed last month in U.S. District Court.

Spielvogel, who had an annual salary of $163,961, seeks past and future lost wages, compensatory damages for “loss of professional reputation and emotional distress,” and reinstatement as college president.

The college declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Spielvogel started as Lake Michigan College’s president on Jan. 4, succeeding Robert Harrison, who’d held the job for 16 years prior to his retirement. She previously worked as vice president of planning and institutional effectiveness at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland.

She quickly ran into trouble with trustees — who terminated her with cause on May 5, a month after she was first suspended — for “unapproved and unauthorized costs expensed to the college; multiple policy violations, improper conduct, improper management behavior and lack of professionalism; and inadequate goals and objectives.” Trustees said the former president made defamatory remarks about board members, college officers and employees. 

Trustees said Spielvogel spent $7,176 for an “elaborate, unauthorized presidential inauguration” ceremony, plus another $2,779 on an architect to redesign her office without receiving permission, and $5,119.81 in unauthorized travel and payroll expenses to attend conferences without prior approval to give presentations for her former employer.

Spielvogel first raised her claims about problems with financial aid at the May 5 just cause hearing at which college trustees unanimously approved her termination.

In a public statement explaining the reasons for her termination, trustees noted that the college’s financial aid program had received a clean audit for 15 years. Still, trustees hired a Washington, D.C. law firm that specializes in federal education regulations, Brustein & Manasevit PLLC, to review its financial aid practices.

The firm found only that there were “some compliance issues, for which it appears you are already working on corrective actions,” according to a response sent to the college.

In court documents, Spielvogel’s attorney, Brad Glazier of Bos & Glazier PLC in Grand Rapids, wrote that she was told early in her tenure by previous president Harrison that Lake Michigan College’s director of financial services had a stroke the previous August and was on extended medical leave.

The director’s “long absence raised concerns about possible compliance issues in the department,” so she retained experts on federal student aid at her former employer in Cleveland to take a look. In two days at the college in early March, they found 15 compliance issues, some of which were “serious” and required immediate attention, plus “numerous other training and software issues that needed to be addressed,” according to the lawsuit.

Spielvogel informed other administrators at Lake Michigan College about the compliance issues and spoke with Tomasini about them the week of March 21. It was at that same time that she began hearing criticism from the board chair about her goals and objectives, conference attendance, and the inauguration planned for April 21 that was later cancelled.

In court papers, Spielvogel defended her attendance at a March conference in Chicago and the plans for an inauguration. Such a ceremony is customary for new college presidents, according to the lawsuit. She also claims the board chair was informed of plans for the inauguration and “no objections to the plan were voiced.”

Spielvogel also noted that college board policy allows the president to sign agreements for up to $100,000 without board approval. 

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