The New College Foundation, which was established to support the New College Institute higher education center in Martinsville, has a new name and a new direction.
But the state attorney general’s office has pressed pause on the transition — and that means scholarships to New College Institute students may also be on hold. It’s the latest event in a history of tension between the boards of the institute and its foundation.
The scholarships, administered by the foundation, are typically awarded to between 15 and 25 students each year. Since 2009, those awards have added up to more than half a million dollars.
NCI is a state-run facility that partners with area colleges and job training programs to provide educational opportunities for people in Martinsville, Henry County and Southside Virginia. Its students range from those enrolled in two-year graduate programs to others taking weeklong wind turbine training.
The foundation manages all aspects of the scholarship program, from reviewing applications to disbursing the money. Several of the scholarship funds prioritize NCI students from Martinsville or Henry County.
But according to the director of the revamped foundation, it’s holding off on scholarship spending due to recent involvement by the attorney general’s office.
That leaves the New College Institute and its board to figure out what financial support will be available for students this coming academic year.
“I don’t know how we’re going to handle the current process for scholarships,” Richard Hall, vice chairman of the New College Institute board, said. “We’re evaluating our options given the current legal stance and our responsibilities.”
The New College Foundation announced on Feb. 7 that it had changed its name to the Martinsville-Henry County Academic Foundation, or MHC Academic Foundation. It said that it would no longer raise money solely to support programming and students at NCI, as it was originally designed to do back in 2006, but that it might give money to other education organizations, too.
The foundation gave NCI $244,000 in 2021-2022 for program development, according to its IRS Form 990.
When the NCI board learned about the foundation’s changes, it contacted its legal counsel, the Virginia Attorney General’s office, for help.
In a letter dated Feb. 8, the attorney general’s office said that in its view, any money “raised, endowed, or held for NCI’s benefit” before Feb. 7 should be considered “restricted funds” that “may not properly be distributed for the benefit of any other organization.”
Since the New College Foundation was established explicitly to raise funds to support the New College Institute, changing course to support other educational projects requires further review, according to the letter, signed by senior assistant attorney general Ramona Taylor.
Kevin DeKoninck, executive director of MHC Academic Foundation, said in an email this week that the foundation responded to the letter from the attorney general’s office. “No existing funds have been used for any purpose other than NCI to date,” he said.
The foundation and the NCI board both declined to release the foundation’s response to Taylor’s letter.
DeKoninck also said that the letter from the attorney general’s office asked MHC Academic Foundation to “pause any new funding at the request of NCI, but we will be of course thinking of the best ways to help the community once we have the means to.”
Taylor’s letter does not specifically reference scholarships, nor does it say that money raised by the foundation for NCI may not be disbursed to NCI.
Asked Thursday about the status of the scholarships, DeKonick reiterated that new funding is paused. “We’d love to continue supporting the community in this way but, due to the Attorney General demanding that we not distribute any funds, we will not be able to at this time,” he said in an email.
DeKoninck, who lives in Tennessee, has served as executive director of the foundation since March 2020.
The scholarship program had come up in correspondence between DeKoninck and Hall early this week. In an email dated March 6 and obtained through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, DeKoninck said the 2023 scholarship application deadline would be June 1 and asked about plans to promote the application period. “Perhaps we could schedule a time next week where we could meet to start penciling out a plan of action,” DeKonick wrote to Hall.
Hall responded that evening. “I am at a complete loss as to why you are even attempting to contact me. While at the helm of NCF, you have continued to ignore the needs of and interfere with the progress of this state agency,” he wrote.
Hall asked DeKoninck not to contact anyone on the staff or board of NCI unless the foundation’s legal counsel communicates with the attorney general’s office.
The exchange took place the day prior to DeKoninck’s statement that new funding is on hold.
The twelve scholarship funds managed by the foundation are open only to people working toward a degree, career endorsement or certificate through a program at NCI.
The foundation awarded $30,000 to 25 NCI students in the fiscal year ending in June 2022, according to public tax records.
In August 2022, the last time awards were made, the foundation gave out eight scholarships for a total of $17,500, according to documents obtained through a FOIA request. Seven scholarships ranging from $500 to $3,500 were awarded to students in Longwood University programs, while a single $3,500 award was made to a Radford University student.
The relationship between the two boards has been strained since at least 2017, based on a review of correspondence obtained through a FOIA request. And NCI has faced scrutiny for the amount of programming it’s offered in recent years, as reported by the Martinsville Bulletin.
In the summer of 2019, Hall wrote to Patrice Newnam, chair of the New College Foundation, about ongoing issues between the two bodies. He wrote in one of the letters, which were obtained through a FOIA request, that institute board members struggled to get foundation members to meet with them to discuss various requests.
In another letter to Newnam, he wrote that the foundation had raised less than $30,000 over three years, and that it hadn’t agreed to financially support any of NCI’s program requests in that same span.
The foundation has also provided funding to the NCI robotics team, known as the STAGS, awarding it $32,000 in 2021. The team, which includes students from Bassett, Magna Vista and Martinsville high schools, went to its first competition of the season last weekend in Blacksburg. Hall said that NCI is working to support programs already underway, including the STAGS robotic team.
Correction — March 10, 2023: Richard Hall is vice chairman of the New College Institute’s board of directors. His title was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.