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Firing prompts resignations from ECC foundation board

The private foundation that raises money for scholarships, capital projects and student activities at Erie Community College is working to rebuild its board of directors, following the abrupt resignations in mid-August of more than half of the board's members.

The trustees resigned in protest over the firing of Jeffrey Bagel, an ECC vice president who oversaw the foundation and the college's alumni relations efforts.

New ECC President Dan Hocoy dismissed Bagel in July as part of an overhaul of senior executive staff to save money at the college, which has struggled with budget woes and declining enrollment. Bagel's post was one of three eliminated.

Although Bagel was employed by the college, the foundation is a separate non-profit corporation. Board members pointed to a 2013 operating agreement between the college and foundation that requires the foundation board to be consulted in the event the foundation director is terminated.

The foundation board's seven officers — including chairman Richard K. Mason and vice chairman John P. Schiavone — resigned in an email letter to Dennis P. Murphy, chairman of the ECC board of trustees. A handful of other foundation trustees, including former Buffalo Bill and NFL Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas, also resigned. Seven members remain.

"Under Jeff's leadership, the foundation had more than doubled its assets," Mason said in a written statement to The News. "Jeff was one of the top employees at the college who always worked to enhance the education experience of all ECC students."

Mason also expressed concern that the foundation was being asked to raise money outside the scope of student scholarships and that the new head of the foundation lacked fundraising experience.

Hocoy acknowledged in an interview that he had erred by not first consulting the full foundation board about the termination. Hocoy said he and other college officials were unaware of the requirement, which he termed highly unusual for agreements between colleges and their foundations.

Upon learning of the requirement, Hocoy rescinded the termination, until he had a chance to meet with the foundation board. "I'm hoping they can see this was an oversight on my part and I apologize profusely," said Hocoy, who praised the work of the foundation trustees on behalf of students.

Murphy said the foundation board is still large enough to be able to conduct business legally.

New foundation chairman Mark Gaulin said he appreciated Hocoy's apology.

"I think he had a misstep. He owned up to it and now we've got to move on," said Gaulin, an ECC graduate who is vice president of Personal Computers Inc.

The board will look to add four or five new members within the next few months, and board members already have identified several candidates, he said.

Hocoy was associate vice chancellor for advancement in the Antioch University System prior to accepting the ECC post, and he has experience raising money for academic institutions.

As part of the administrative downsizing, Hocoy asked Michael Pietkiewicz, executive vice president of operations at ECC, to take on an expanded role as executive vice president for institutional advancement and efficiency. Pietkiewicz is now overseeing the foundation, while also creating operational efficiencies throughout the college to help ensure balanced budgets.

The foundation, created in 1988, had an endowment of nearly $2 million in August 2016, according to its most recent tax returns.

The returns showed private giving to the foundation slid from $954,434 in 2011-12 to $424,585 in 2015-16.

The foundation spent nearly as much in 2015-16 as it received in contributions: $250,630 went to student scholarships, $68,567 to support for educational services at the college, $42,557 to support for student activities and $28,595 for other expenses, including support for college meetings and conferences and support for facilities improvements, services and supplies.

The college paid the salaries of three of the four employees who worked on behalf of the foundation, as well as some other foundation overhead. In all, total costs of operating the foundation exceeded the amount it brought into the college in 2015-16.

Gaulin said the foundation needs to do more to assist students.

"There's no doubt about it, we've got to be raising more funds as a board," he said. "Some of this stuff requires just asking and asking the right people."

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