Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories about the upcoming election for the Colorado Mountain College board of trustees, concerning the candidacy of incumbent Mary Ellen Denomy to retain her seat representing West Garfield County. The second story, about challenger Jay Rickstrew of Rifle, will appear in the Oct. 9 edition of the Post Independent.
RIFLE — Mary Ellen Denomy, discussing possibly the most controversial issue that has faced the Colorado Mountain College board of trustees in the past year, said that she did not support the idea of paying out a $500,000 severance check to get rid of former CMC president Stan Jensen.
“I would have stuck to what we were required to pay,” she said, referring to a severance section in Jensen’s contract that put severance amounts in the $200,000 range, with a housing allowance.
The reasons behind Jensen’s departure, and most of the conditions attached to it, have been kept secret other than news about the severance check, which caused considerable, often negative comment within the district.
“Once the discussion got to a point beyond what was required, I was uncomfortable with it,” Denomy said. The board ultimately voted 3-0 in favor of the severance, which Denomy said was negotiated strictly between Glenn Davis, the board chair, and Jensen. Voting on the measure were trustees Pat Chlouber, Bob Taylor and Kathy Goudy. Davis cast no vote, and three trustees — Denomy, Ken Brenner and Anne Freedman — were not at the meeting.
Freedman has since moved out of the area, and Brenner declined to comment about his reasons for missing that particular meeting.
According to Denomy, the board did not have a clue about the size of the check until the last minute.
“I did not support it,” she said, but realizing she would be in the minority on the board she stayed away from the meeting where the severance deal was finalized.
“I made the specific choice to not be at the meeting where that was discussed,” she declared, adding that she was aware that “the negotiations that were going on with the chair were beyond the amount of money that I felt comfortable with.”
She would have preferred an amount of about $200,000, at the most, she said. But she had been told by Davis that Jensen would not leave the college for any less than a half-million dollars and felt her presence and her opposition to the severance would somehow interfere with the meeting, she said.
Denomy, 56, is the incumbent in the only contested race on the board of trustees that will be decided in the election on Nov. 5. A resident of Parachute, she is running against Rifle resident Jay Rickstrew, an officer at Alpine Bank in Rifle. Incumbent board chair Glenn Davis and recently appointed Trustee Charles Cunniuffe are both unopposed.
During an interview about her candidacy, Denomy said she essentially ran for her first term four years ago because she was asked to do it.
Denomy, a divorced mom with three grandchildren and an accomplished accountant with a record for working on behalf of landowners rather than energy companies, said she was asked to run for the seat by then-incumbent Roy Brubacher, who could not run again due to term limits, because he felt there was a need for “someone with financial skills.”
She signed up and found she had no opponent, she recalled, “and it has turned out to be a very good learning experience” to grow familiar with the world of academia after a lengthy career as an accountant and a lecturer on such topics as oil and gas accounting, how to read a royalty contract and royalty check and other esoteric subjects.
She viewed her work on the lecture circuit as a type of teaching, and she has been known to wear costumes to liven things up.
“CPAs are dull and boring, so it’s easy to lose people when you try to teach them,” she explained. “I think that runs true for all education. All teachers need to find a way to reach their students, whether it’s costumes, or hip-hop, just so they find a way to reach each person individually.”
During her tenure, she said she has learned a lot about education in general, about the presidential search process, and about trying to find the correct mix of philosophies to meet the needs and interests of all 11 campuses in the CMC system.
And what she has learned, she said, has helped prepare her for what’s coming, such as how to handle the college district’s strategic planning process, figuring out how to work with a new CMC president, and dealing with the process of accreditation which is to be done next year by the Higher Learning Commission.
A major issue for her, she said, will be “to ensure that the institution acts as one, but to give autonomy to each of the campuses, as most of them have their own personality.”
For example, she said, Rifle has an energy-related curriculum, Leadville focuses on mining and search and rescue techniques, including air rescue.
In Breckenridge, she said, a key degree is in learning to be a chef, while Steamboat Springs has “a big appeal because of where it’s located” in the Central Rockies, where skiing, camping, hiking and other outdoor activities are a short distance from the campus.
Glenwood Springs, she said, represents “a conglomerate on more of the academic side,” with history, teaching and other traditional curricula.
The college offers two four-year degree programs, in sustainability, business management and teacher education, and is about to add nursing and general science studies, Denomy said.
But, she noted, she hopes the school is not on a path to become solely a four-year institution.
“The vocational education that we offer is indispensable,” Denomy said, mentioning such course programs as emergency management, welding, construction education, energy industry education and other areas.
Denomy said she is aware of the recently completed Gap Analysis Report about a broad array of issues relating to the college operations, but once again said she and others on the board were not privy to the decisions that led Jensen to hire consultant Deborah Pain of Breckenridge, or to agree to a $165,000 price tag for the report.
“There’s a lot of things that, as president, our board gives the authority to the president to do,” she said, though she said the idea of the Gap study was “welcomed” by the trustees as a way to get a better handle on “what goes on across the college district.”
Now that Jensen is gone, she said, the board feels “a need to do some more in depth analysis of how the college is run,” including an examination of the Gap report.
Another phenomenon following Jensen’s departure, Denomy acknowledged, has been the resignation of more than two dozen longtime employees.
Denomy said she has talked to some of the departees, and said, “A lot of them have left because they believe that there is no direction at CMC ... no clear understanding of who’s in charge of what, so they’re seeking other places that they think are more stable.”
The need to strengthen faculty and student trust in the institution is a real one, Denomy admitted, but added. “The students love our college. That is something I have to credit our faculty with. They have maintained the quality of our college for our students.”
The real job for the trustees, she said, is “to gain the trust of our community, the communities that we serve.”