MATC's dental hygiene clinic

Manhattan Area Technical College’s administration and board of directors kept their planned decision to close the college’s automotive collision and dental hygiene programs a secret from students, faculty and other stakeholders, a Mercury investigation found.

Following a recent decision to close two Manhattan Area Technical College programs, stakeholders say they want answers about why the decision was made in secret.

The college’s board voted in late January to close the dental hygiene and automotive collision programs following a recommendation from MATC president James Genandt. But Genandt and other administrators moved to keep that process a secret from the programs’ staff, faculty and other stakeholders, a Mercury investigation has found.

The board also may have violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act, according to an expert on that law. The act requires that state and local public agencies, such as MATC, announce and deliberate most business items in public.

Administrators didn’t tell many of those groups about the decision to close the programs until days after the decision, and students in the programs weren’t told until a week after the decision and days after a Mercury story reported the decision, according to Callie Poland, a faculty member with the dental hygiene program. That left faculty and other instructors fielding questions from panicked students, she said.

Additionally, while each of the college’s programs is given a program advisory council (PAC) — made up of industry professionals and stakeholders from the area — to consult with and ensure the long-term success of the program, the dental hygiene PAC said it had never been given any indication that Genandt was planning on closing the program.

“The role of the Dental Hygiene program advisory committee is to help MATC monitor the program and aid in its success,” the dental professionals said in a statement. “We, as the PAC committee, are deeply disappointed by the decision to close the program without our involvement.

“We feel the hygiene program provides a much-needed service to the community which it serves and area dentists with quality graduates. This program will be missed.”

Dr. Michael Wangsgaard, a retired faculty dentist with the program and member of the PAC, said the decision was a “total blindside.”

“There were no advance comments, indicators, directions, suggestions, memos — anything,” he said. “It’s my understanding, with conversations with the director and others, that there were no indicators of this.”

Wangsgaard said the last time Genandt had visited with the PAC about the program was in 2017. According to PAC minutes of that meeting, Genandt had mentioned during a discussion on clinic fees that the program was running a deficit of $100,000.

As part of its training for students, the program offers low-cost dental cleanings and other related services, but even with that revenue and the comparatively higher tuition the college charged dental students compared to other programs, the program typically runs a deficit and requires “subsidies” from other profit-earning programs.

Still, at that 2017 meeting, Genandt told the PAC that the college was not looking to make a profit with the program, but he did want to find ways to reduce the deficit.

Reasons for closure

In justifying the decision to close the two programs, Genandt said it came down to a need to become competitive for funding that had once been a given, and a lack of demand for the professions. The school needed to keep funding and space secure for other programs, like welding, that have contributed to the school’s recent surge in enrollment.

Every year, the college receives Perkins funding from the federal government that the government allocates to states intended to pay for Career and Technical Education programs in secondary and postsecondary education, particularly technical colleges. The Kansas Board of Regents then allocates those funds.

However, Genandt said that when that funding was reauthorized in 2018, the Regents changed their guidelines, and to receive the funding, technical colleges’ Perkins allocations are now evaluated on their programs’ ability to supply workers for high-wage and high-demand occupations.

To identify those occupations, Genandt pointed to Kansas Department of Labor data, particularly the department’s occupational projection report.

The report shows that for several of MATC’s fields of instruction, there is high demand for workers that shows a corresponding need for technical training programs. For example, the size of the construction occupations workforce in northeast Kansas is expected to grow by more than 1,800 workers between 2012 and 2022, and the registered nurse workforce is expected to also boom and need 850 more workers.

In comparison, the report shows that dental hygiene and automotive body repair are low-demand occupations, showing net new jobs of 36 and 31, respectively.

Genandt speculated that fewer people are choosing to repair their cars when they’re involved in accidents, leading to a low demand for the occupation. For dental hygiene, Genandt said it would be difficult to remain competitive for students in the region when there are already four other dental hygiene programs within 150 miles of Manhattan, with a fifth one starting at Salina Area Technical College.

Genandt also said the programs showed low enrollment, claiming that the programs struggled to pull in double-digit classes for the past few years. The one-year automotive collision program will close at the end of the year, while the two-year dental hygiene program will close at the end of next school year to “teach out” its class of first-year students.

But at least on the dental hygiene side, the PAC disputes Genandt’s numbers and say they were never given a chance to present their alternative numbers to the board. Wangsgaard, who owned a local practice for more than 40 years before selling it in 2008, said that when the program started in 2010, it set a new standard for the industry in the area.

The two-year program can take 14 students per class, and Wangsgaard said the program typically averaged 13 or 14 students per year in its 10-year history, with a couple of years seeing lower admittance numbers because the program artificially lowered the class size to maintain high academic standards in its pool of students.

Since it opened, no student has ever failed the industry exams all dental hygiene students must take after graduating, Wangsgaard said, and most classes have averaged in the 90-plus percentile range on those tests.

“No other school — not Johnson County, not UMKC, not Wichita State, certainly not Colby — can boast those kinds of figures,” he said. “This school came out of nowhere to become a leader in the industry.

“Since the program’s inception, this has raised the benchmark for success for graduates to get their licensure by passing their requirement boards,” he continued. “No other school can boast that.”

Wangsgaard also said while demand for dental hygienists might be low in the region, the PAC found national data that shows high demand for the profession nationally, and MATC’s now-lost graduates would have been competitive for those positions. But the board never saw any other data, because they made their decision suddenly and without warning, Wangsgaard said.

Open Meetings questions

The Kansas Open Meetings Act requires that public entities must discuss most of their business in public, and all decisions must be voted on in public. While MATC does not have direct local taxing authority, it does receive public funding through the Kansas Board of Regents and is therefore subject to the act.

But while the Regents allocate funds and rule on the establishment of new programs at technical colleges, decisions to close programs are made entirely by those college’s local boards.

The act does allow public entities to meet in “executive session” away from the public, but those entities can do so only for certain subjects and only by following a strict set of criteria. The subjects include certain personnel matters, attorney-client conversations with the entity’s attorney and preliminary acquisition of real estate, among other exemptions.

When moving to go into executive session, the public entity also must make a motion explicitly stating the subject to be discussed, the justification for closing the meeting to the public, and the time and place that the entity will resume the public portion of its meeting.

The Mercury reviewed minutes from the MATC Board of Director’s January meeting and found that to discuss the program closure, the board moved to go into executive session to discuss “Confidential Matters: Program and Financial Review.” The board cited the Kansas Open Meetings Act’s allowance for executive sessions “relating to the financial affairs or trade secrets of corporations, partnerships, trusts, and individual proprietorships.”

Max Kautsch, a Lawrence-based First Amendment and open government lawyer, said that based on the information The Mercury presented him, which included a copy of the minutes from the board’s January meeting, it appears that MATC’s board of directors violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

Kautsch said his understanding of the open meetings act is that the purpose of the executive session exception for “financial affairs or trade secrets” is meant to protect the proprietary or patent information of private companies that might be dealing with government entities. For example, the exception would apply when government agencies requests bids for projects that would require the bidding companies to discuss private company information or trade secrets.

There’s no indication that the MATC board’s discussions had anything to do with dealings with private businesses but rather was about the financial affairs of the college itself.

“It’s hard to imagine how that exception would apply when talking about the policy matters of a public organization,” Kautsch said.

Board chair Randall Anderes and vice chair Therese Adams did not respond to The Mercury’s requests for comment for this article. Instead, board clerk Tracy Geisler told The Mercury not to contact board members directly, as the board and the president issue comments as “one voice.”

Geisler contended that the board and administration are allowed to have executive sessions to discuss “confidential business.” Geisler said there were no recordings of the meeting beyond the minutes that she prepared per KOMA’s mandate.

“Some of those business discussions have to be confidential because the board discusses it frankly and comes to a consensus,” Geisler said, “and we come out of executive session, and then a motion is made by a board member, if they’re going to take action.”

In interviews with The Mercury, Genandt said the board’s discussion in the executive session included the financial information of private businesses. He didn’t disclose the businesses being discussed. He said he stood by his previous comments on the matter, saying that he and the board followed proper process and consulted with the board’s lawyer before moving into executive session.

He declined to directly address The Mercury’s question on whether the board, faculty or the PACs had known that he would recommend to close the programs, saying instead that those groups should have known the closures were coming based on low enrollment and demand for the programs.

Poland said that can’t have been the case, and she said she suspects there Genandt has ulterior reasons for closing the program.

“Contrary to what administration is saying by commenting that this is something we should have seen coming, that is not the case,” she said. “We just did an expansion on our building, no discussions about changes or plans to fix any deficits were had, no profit/loss data was discussed or disclosed to us. Additionally, (Genandt) had been open about having discussions about partnering with Konza to create a more permanent building for dental hygiene and allied health, even as recently as last fall.”

Additionally, while MATC’s board of directors’ governance manual stipulates that the president shall “not … retain existing programs without consideration of cost-effectiveness and clear evidence of need and value,” it also mandates that the president is charged with making sure “an open climate in the decision-making process” is not discouraged.

A public health issue

Wangsgaard said local dentists will undoubtedly lose out on local talent as the city grows and demand for dental hygienists grows with it.

But in his mind, the biggest loss for the community is in public health.

“There is no other entity in the five-county area that can provide the quality of care that the dental hygiene program was providing at the fees that were required to be paid,” he said. “If suddenly the school closes, then all of a sudden, these people have no other place to turn to for the quality of care that they were receiving.”

The dental hygiene program also served a large population of K-State’s international student body, as well as other students and people who had never had access to affordable dental cleanings, PAC members said. The program worked with K-State’s Lafene Health Center to host a free dental clinic for students on Feb. 26 that was completely booked, using some of the program’s portable clinic equipment. Even with the dental hygiene program’s closure on the horizon, the program and health center are hoping to host another free clinic.

The PAC began early discussions about what could or will take the program’s place, especially as a godsend for the community’s lower-income people. Maybe another state college will build a satellite dental hygiene program in Manhattan, although Genandt said that program would have to be off of MATC’s campus. He said if there was interest, he’d also like to find a way to give a new program MATC’s equipment.

PAC members also floated the idea of having K-State take over the program through Lafene.

“They have the clout to make something happen,” Wangsgaard said. “In my mind, that’s where I hope this goes.”

Genandt said while he recognized the value of the dental hygiene program in the community, the decision to close the programs was “purely business.”

“It’s never an easy decision, but it was a business decision,” he said. “I need to grow other programs to make us competitive for those Perkins funds and optimize our ability to meet regional workforce needs.”