The board of the New College Institute voted Wednesday to move forward with plans to sue its foundation. But the state-run higher education center also signaled a desire to focus on its future role in the Martinsville region.
The board voted unanimously to put $250,000 of existing funds toward litigation “to recover taxpayer funds” held by the institute’s foundation, which rebranded in February as the Martinsville-Henry County Academic Foundation.
The foundation’s rebrand includes a revised mission to serve educational causes in the greater Martinsville area, not just at NCI. But the foundation was established in 2006 expressly to raise funds to support NCI. That leaves the foundation’s $12 million in assets — including $7.5 million from its 2020 sale of NCI’s campus to the commonwealth — in the balance.
Richard Hall, vice chair of the NCI board, had no comment Wednesday regarding details or timing of the anticipated litigation. The institute’s attorney, Senior Assistant Attorney General Cindy Norwood Morris, also declined to comment.
The foundation’s director, Kevin DeKoninck, did not respond to a phone message left Wednesday.
Despite the anticipated legal case, the board was upbeat as it looked ahead to new programs and partnerships at the institute after years of turmoil. Its foundation and others have criticized it for dwindling programming, and the pandemic forced a shift away from the in-person programming NCI had originally focused on. It has gone through several leadership changes since 2016, and its long-term role in the Martinsville area has come into question.
But NCI Executive Director Joe Sumner told the board he’s focused on increasing K-12 educational programs as well as short-term job training opportunities at the center.
NCI soon will start registering participants to train for a variety of fiber technician certifications needed for in-demand jobs installing infrastructure for broadband internet. A media blitz to recruit participants will stretch across the state, including promotion on billboards and TV commercials, paid for by state funds given to NCI to implement the program. The certification courses range from 40 to 100-plus hours, with student costs starting around $400.
NCI also is preparing to revive the Center for Advanced Film Manufacturing, a collaboration with Patrick & Henry Community College and Eastman, the chemical company that’s one of the largest employers in Martinsville. The program, which was paused in 2018 due to staffing constraints at Eastman, allowed students from the community college to use protective film manufacturing machinery that’s housed at NCI. The machine will be serviced this summer, and Sumner said he’s working with P&HCC to review the curriculum and make updates ahead of the fall restart.
During the meeting, NCI signed an agreement with the Wendell Scott Foundation to bring the nonprofit’s K-12 programming to NCI. The foundation, based in Danville to honor the pioneering African American NASCAR driver and owner, offers three programs focusing on STEM learning opportunities and mentorship for elementary through high school students.
The organization already works with students throughout Southside Virginia. As part of the agreement, some of Scott’s memorabilia may be housed at NCI to serve as a tourist attraction for visitors to the nearby Martinsville Speedway. Warrick Scott Sr., grandson of the driver and CEO of the foundation, expressed interest in relocating the nonprofit from Danville to the Baldwin Block, where NCI is located.
Sumner, who joined NCI in February, said the institute is hiring a director of institutional advancement who will handle government and public relations, grant writing and branding for the higher education center. NCI also plans to hire someone to lead data collection and oversee the software platform that tracks NCI programs over time. Sumner said that hire is a direct response to an April 2023 performance audit by the Office of the Inspector General to strengthen documentation of its program results.
Several seats on the board are available now or will be vacated in the coming months. State Sen. Emmett Hanger Jr., R-Augusta County, isn’t running for reelection, so his seat will be open come January.
State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County and the board’s chair, stressed the importance of recommending new board members to the state for the open governor-appointed positions, noting that people with local ties and business interests “are going to be very important” to move the institute forward.
A senior executive from Eastman has submitted an application to the state to be considered for one of the open seats.