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CFCC President Jim Morton's compensation is outpacing almost all local leaders and college presidents

CFCC President Jim Morton facing Board of Trustee members.
Bethanie Simms
CFCC President Jim Morton facing Board of Trustee members.

Cape Fear Community College President Jim Morton has seen the largest percent increase — nearly 40 percent — in salary over the past three years when compared to both other government leaders in New Hanover County and other presidents of top community colleges around the state, as well as the president of the state community college system.

Last year alone, the CFCC Board of Trustees unanimously voted to raise his salary to $361,296 in May, which is a 12% increase. His overall 39% salary increase over the last three years means his compensation has improved dramatically more than any other local leader, and his pay is higher than those running the City of Wilmington, New Hanover County, and the New Hanover County Schools district.

Morton, who leads the fifth-largest community college in the state, also had the largest percent increase over this three-year period when compared to the highest-paid college presidents — and ones with top enrollment figures. [Note: You can find additional comparisons at the bottom of this article.]

Comparison of salaries and salary increases for leaders of New Hanover County institutions and top North Carolina community colleges.
Rachel Keith
Comparison of salaries and salary increases for leaders of New Hanover County institutions and top North Carolina community colleges.

While the CFCC Board Trustees have praised Morton for his achievements over the past three years claiming rising enrollments and full-time equivalency (FTE) numbers, he and his administration have come under fire for an alleged toxic work environment and have been mired in recent controversies. That includes the recent ‘contract non-renewals' — that is, effectively, the firing — of three long-time academic deans and one of their assistants. It also includes the controversial removal of two trustees from the college board, both of whom challenged Morton.

Several weeks ago, WHQR asked why these contracts were not renewed and whether the college plans to rehire for those positions, and if not, who would faculty report to now that there is no dean for the departments of general education and sciences, career and technical education, and the learning resource center. The college has yet to answer these questions.

Last week, former CFCC Trustee Ray Funderburk filed suit against the college, alleging he was wrongfully removed from his seat in early March and that the board violated his First Amendment rights. His filing also details Morton’s unusual rise to power.

Last summer, Funderburk was the lone dissenting vote against Morton’s 10% raise in salary, saying he was given no information nor justification for the increase. Further, he said he faced backlash from the Board Chair Bill Cherry for talking to the media about his vote.

New Hanover County leadership salary comparison

In terms of salary, Morton ($361,296) makes more than New Hanover County manager Chris Coudriet ($288,488), more than City of Wilmington manager Tony Caudle ($236,250), and more than New Hanover County Schools Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust ($249,774).

Dr. Aswani Volety, the newest chancellor of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, makes $381,583. Morton is about $20,000 shy of making the same amount — although Volety has a long career in academic leadership and university presidents traditionally make more than college leadership.

In terms of salary increase over the last three years, Morton again far exceeds other local government leaders. Coudriet has received a 25% increase over this span. Relatively new local leaders like Foust (6%) and Caudle (5%) have seen more modest increases recently.

While Morton tops the salaries of Coudriet, Caudle, and Foust, his CFCC budget, which consists of state, county, and institutional funds, and the number of employees are significantly lower than those of other institutions.

Coudriet oversees the largest budget in the county at $590 million for the upcoming fiscal year, while Foust supervises the most employees at 3,700 people. UNCW, last fiscal year, had a budget of $444 million and 2,278 employees.

Morton has a $117 million budget and oversees 1,092 staff and faculty. The county gives CFCC about a fifth of their budget ($24 million) — and is maintaining this amount next fiscal year.

County taxpayers also pay for more than half of Morton’s salary – which continues to increase. Based on his new salary bump, the county would be on the hook for around $189,000 of that $361,000. Local taxpayers also have to pay any other CFCC employees’ salaries over $152,417. That includes employees like Vice Presidents Michael Cobb, Shane Fernando, Christina Greene, and Anne Smith.

North Carolina Community College leadership salary comparison

Morton makes more than current North Carolina Community College President Dr. Jeff Cox. Cox, who was recently hired in April to run the system office, makes $350,000. Morton also now makes more than outgoing 16-year college president Dr. J. Larry Keen of Fayetteville Tech ($352,379) who recently retired in December.

There are only two community college presidents who make more than Morton. They are Dr. Scott Ralls of Wake Tech ($366,036) and Dr. Kandi Deitemeyer of Central Piedmont ($386,025), who oversee the first and second largest enrollment community colleges in the state.

But Morton is quickly catching up; his 39% salary increase over the past three years is much larger than those received by Deitmeyer (18%) and Ralls (7%).

Morton also has a smaller budget ($117 million) when compared to Central Piedmont’s $250 million and Wake Tech’s $235 million. Wake Tech and Central Piedmont also have larger numbers of employees when compared to CFCC.

Guilford Tech President Dr. Anthony Clarke leads the fourth largest community college and earns a salary of $233,393, he oversees a larger budget ($158 million) than CFCC and has more employees at 1,270.

Morton is the only college president among these top earners who lacks a doctorate. The CFCC Board of Trustees weakened the requirements for the job prior to hiring Morton, who has a bachelor's degree.

Personnel records for Michelle Lee, ousted deans

WHQR is still looking into others who have prospered — or perished — under Morton’s administration.

WHQR is still waiting on a May 23 public records request for an updated personnel record for Michelle Lee, Morton’s chief of staff and board liaison. At the May board meeting, members announced Lee received a change in title. She was formerly known as the executive director of the president’s office. This fiscal year, Lee received a 15% increase in pay – 13% of that came from a state labor market adjustment fund meant for the retention of the college’s employees. She now makes $141,000.

In addition, to understand if these labor market increases were in compliance with state rules, WHQR requested the current salary grade charts for both staff employees and faculty.

WHQR is also waiting for the updated personnel files for Lynn Criswell, Mark Council, Catherine Lee, and Robin Metty, as those were the four employees whose positions were non-renewed.

Resources: Find more CFCC reporting here.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify Morton's level of post-secondary education.

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR