After 25 years, San Antonio College lost a valuable tradition, ousted professor says

When the Alamo Colleges District board voted April 19 to uphold the firing of a tenured professor, it ended a murky argument over his two salaries that had raged for months.

But the firing also cemented the end of a 25-year relationship between San Antonio College and the Texas Academic Decathlon, a high school competition that moved this year to the University of the Incarnate Word.

The fired professor, Rickey Hopkins – who is also the executive director of the nonprofit that runs the decathlon – said he still can not fathom why SAC did not try to keep the prestigious event.

The decathlon’s federal tax filings had labeled Hopkins’ side job a full-time position, which the college does not allow its full-time faculty to hold. Hopkins said that was a clerical error that he did not notice for years.

The unanimous vote to finalize Hopkins’ termination, effective Nov. 21, came after he made his final appeal arguments in a public hearing. It ended his 35 years at SAC teaching court reporting.

“He has never reported that he had full-time outside employment,” states the termination recommendation signed by SAC President Robert Vela, Associate Vice Chancellor of Human Resources Linda Boyer-Owens and Alamo Colleges District Chancellor Mike Flores.

“In addition, he has used College District property and resources, including SAC’s address as the business address of the Texas Academic Decathlon,” it states.

Hopkins argued that college and district officials knew and approved of his job with the decathlon, which began in 2015, though he had worked on the event at SAC for years before that, beginning in 1996.

For one thing, Hopkins was given a pass from teaching classes in the spring semester for several years after he became executive director, so he could work on the event.

He pointed to amendments to the decathlon’s IRS reports made after his termination and letters from the organization’s board as evidence that the job was part time, not full time.

“One of the most disappointing aspects of this termination was the fact that the president of San Antonio College did not ask me directly about this,” Hopkins told the board. “This could have all been avoided by speaking man to man instead of relying on mediators.”

Alamo Colleges and SAC officials declined to be interviewed on the firing and could not immediately confirm how many years SAC had hosted the decathlon.

In a written statement, however, they indicated that the decathlon’s paperwork problems were not limited to IRS forms.

The college district has a process for outside organizations to use its facilities and “never had a signed agreement for the Texas Academic Decathlon to be housed or operated year-round at San Antonio College,” the statement said.

Well before the firing, there seemed less enthusiasm about keeping the event at SAC after Vela became the college’s president, said Kathy Rollo, the head of the decathlon’s governing board.

“The previous president of San Antonio College, they were very supportive of the Texas Academic Decathlon,” said Rollo, who is the superintendent of the Lubbock Independent School District. “My understanding is that with the change of leadership at the community college, they wanted to part ways, and we do not really know why.”

Hopkins said the nonprofit and UIW officials are working on a draft memorandum of understanding to keep the event at the university. When it was held there in February, the university was very welcoming, Rollo said, visiting with participants, speaking at the event and offering scholarships.

“Now, the firing, the termination, of Mr. Hopkins, that definitely was a shock to all of us, ”Rollo said.

‘Smartest kids in the state’

In his appeal, Hopkins pointed out that the Texas Academic Decathlon had been held at SAC since 1996. He was first tapped to help on a volunteer basis that year by Robert Zeigler, at the time the college’s interim president, and it was not until 2015 that he became its executive director, Hopkins said.

“I want to thank you for your help to host the Small School Academic Decathlon,” read a letter Zeigler sent him Feb. 28, 1997. “Your efforts provided a wonderful experience for a number of deserving high school students.”

Hopkins presented similar letters from campus staff through the years and district reports as recent as 2019 acknowledging the competition taking place at the college.

The program has grown to host about 350 students who compete as teams in a 10-event scholastic competition focusing on a different topic each year. They win medals, scholarships and recognition for mastering the subject.

Hopkins began receiving “release hours” during spring semesters to coordinate the event – credit hours he was not required to teach – and was allowed to use his work email, phone and even campus space for decathlon purposes, he said.

He was assigned regular workloads for the fall and summer semesters, he said, when the event was not being coordinated on campus.

The district confirmed Hopkins received nine to 15 hours of “release time,” meaning he did not have to teach three to five courses, in the spring semesters of 2016 through 2020.

In an interview, Hopkins said he was not made aware of any issue with his work for the decathlon prior to being summoned in November to Vela’s office, where the college president, human resources staff and campus police were ready to make his termination official.

“The decathlon was bringing 360 of the smartest kids in the state to campus,” Hopkins said. “In addition to that, it was bringing 100 faculty members from those high schools, who had exposure to far more than 360 of the brightest (students), who could talk about San Antonio College and what a beautiful campus it is.”

Not all would be looking to start their higher education at a community college, Hopkins said, but some might – and they’d know about SAC, which made the event “a great thing” for the college.

In 2015, Hopkins said, he reported to SAC officials that he had been offered a part-time job as the decathlon’s state executive director, overseeing 12 regional directors. He took the job in 2016 and has led the coordination of the annual decathlon since.

“If you check with other state directors throughout the United States, all of them are part time,” Hopkins said. “There’s not a single full-time state director anywhere in the United States, and that includes the state director for California, which has the largest program.”

While the part-time work mostly could be done on nights and weekends, the oversight of hosting the event at SAC justified the release hours, he said.

Rollo said Hopkins’ job with the decathlon “has never been full time.” It gets busy during competition season, but “most of the time, it’s quite quiet,” she said.

Hopkins gathered letters to that effect from other board members, including Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods, who sent an email to Flores, the Alamo Colleges chancellor.

“The board members were clear that Rick had a full-time job at the Alamo Colleges and we believed that the Academic Decathlon work could be accomplished part time,” Woods wrote. “We also created a compensation package that reflected the part-time nature of the work.”

Hopkins’ compensation in 2020 from the decathlon was almost $ 80,000. Rollo said the pay was for a part-time job with no benefits.

Hopkins said his salary as a SAC professor has varied over the past few years. He said he earned $ 82,793 in 2021 and $ 79,510 in 2020.

But the salary the decathlon chose to pay him and how much it added to his teaching pay are not the question, Hopkins said. The college had a problem with the hours.

“We do not take a vow of poverty to become a teacher,” Hopkins said. “There’s nothing wrong with supplementing our income. And yes, I am paid very well by the decathlon. ”

‘A bigger mistake’

Because Hopkins had tenure, a panel of 12 faculty members and two administrators reviewed his appeal in February. It voted 7-4 to deny it.

Only after he was fired, the college district’s lawyer noted, did Hopkins send the IRS amended financial statements since 2016 changing the 40 hours reported to 20 hours.

“We are not disputing that he did a great job moving the decathlon to a great level, but he did it at our expense, at the college district’s expense, by working full time,” Roxella Cavazos, the district’s associate general counsel, told the board.

Cavazos also brought up Hopkins’ pay increases from the decathlon over the years. In 2016 and 2017, he reported earning $ 70,000, the IRS filings show. In 2018 he earned $ 75,000, in 2019 it was $ 78,750, and in 2020, it was $ 79,775.

Those figures are correct, Hopkins said.

His appeal included a letter from ADKF, an accounting firm based in San Antonio that prepared the IRS statements, saying Hopkins’ predecessor had been a full-time employee in 2015 and the forms the firm prepared through 2020 did not note the change to part time when Hopkins took over.

“We have amended the 2018, 2019 and 2020 Forms 990s to reflect the change from 40 hours to 20 hours,” the letter states. “IRS regulations will not allow the amendments for the 2015-2017 returns. Therefore we can not make the change for those years. ”

Hopkins said he blames himself for not alerting the accounting firm that he was working part time.

“The former director, she was full time. Then, when I took over and I submitted the documents to my auditor, they just took the information from that and ran with it, ”Hopkins said. “And they trusted me that the document I gave them to refer to was correct. I never thought about that at all. At all.

“Obviously in hindsight, it was a bigger mistake than I thought.”

The Texas Academic Decathlon has grown under Hopkins’ leadership, and its board has “complete confidence” in him, Rollo said.

“Since he has taken over, the organization has not only thrived, but we transitioned quickly during COVID and were able to continue the program,” she said. “The organization is very sound fiscally, and he is responsible for that.”

Hopkins now has an office at UIW. For the moment, he’s not teaching court reporting, a well-paid, high-demand skill and a potential life-changer for students that he hopes SAC and other colleges do not take for granted, he said.

He was surprised that the Alamo Colleges board rejected his appeal, but added, “I’ve come to grips with it.”

“I’ve moved on and I’m perfectly happy with what I’m doing at UIW. They are very welcoming of the program, ”Hopkins said. “So who knows, maybe this is all for the best.”

[email protected] | @DanyaPH

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