College President Michael Baston, second from right, and others celebrate at the "Baston Bash." Credit: Cuyahoga Community College

The night had it all: Nearly $9,000 worth of potato and cheddar pierogies. Sparkly gold and bright teal tablecloths. Cuyahoga Community College’s name and logo carved out in ice. A specialty mocktail (blue Hawaiian Punch, pineapple juice, soda water) and cocktail (the same, add vodka). A bassist who has played with musicians like Babyface and Toni Braxton. 

It all came together as part of last month’s “Baston Bash.” The event’s name is a nod to Cuyahoga Community College President Michael Baston, who was inaugurated April 14. The party happened that night at Cleveland Browns Stadium. 

Baston wore a navy suit coupled with a paisley-patterned gold vest and tie, according to photos published online. His wife, Tasha Baston, coordinated in a blue dress with similar gold details. Baston’s face flashed across monitors in the room, his name written in bold script on table placards.  

But, despite its moniker, the event wasn’t just a toast to Baston. The Cuyahoga Community College Foundation used the affair to announce the public phase of its “Skills to Succeed” fundraising campaign. Fifty million dollars has already been raised through government grants, area foundations and local businesses.

The initiative has a big umbrella, funding a range of things from student scholarships to opening three food pantries at the college’s Metropolitan, Western and Westshore campuses. Food insecurity is a big deal for college students. It’s especially paramount for those at two-year public institutions nationwide, where nearly 40% are believed to not have enough food to eat on a regular basis. 

Tri-C’s foundation also picked up the tab for the evening – a total of $127,629. Signal Cleveland obtained contracts for the event through a public records request. 

“Creating one event to celebrate Dr. Baston’s inauguration and announce the campaign allowed us to maximize excitement about the mission of Tri-C, celebrate donors in a meaningful way, and engage a broad community in the accomplishments and impact of Tri-C,” foundation staff told Signal in response to emailed questions. 

The foundation has spent big for other events, like paying $150,000 to host Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer at a fundraising luncheon in 2017. It then spent $236,000 in legal fees in an effort to keep local TV station Fox 8 from disclosing that contract, the station reported

In a recap of his first 100 days in office, Baston said he’s committed to being values-centered and student-focused. Tri-C, like all two-year public colleges, aims to be a more affordable way to educate big swaths of its community. 

That’s important in a place like Cleveland, where the median household income is $33,678. The number of students the college educates is declining, though. From fall 2019 to fall 2022, total enrollment dropped by more than one-third, to 15,764 students. 

Officials said none of the college’s staff contributed to planning this party, though Baston did give “high-level input on the event plan and run-of-show.” One college employee was listed on a contract for audio visual services, but officials said the foundation paid that bill. 

Here’s a breakdown of where some of the money went for the bash, according to contracts:

  • $66,007 to the Cleveland Browns Hospitality Group for food and drinks
  • $19,999 to NPi Audio Visual Solutions 
  • $16,788 to Event Source for things like backdrops, tables, and plates
  • $6,716 to ASV Services for valet parking
  • $2,685 to L’Nique for linens

The foundation said 261 tickets were sold, ranging in price from $60 to $250. Plus, 224 tickets were provided for free to donors, volunteers and special guests.

Signal’s request for a list of those who were invited as well as those who attended wasn’t provided by the time this article was published. 

Those ticket sales helped pay for the event. Eleven sponsorships totaling nearly $40,000 from a variety of groups including Cleveland State University, College Now Greater Cleveland, First Energy, and the Greater Cleveland RTA did, too. 

The foundation’s operating budget covered costs as well, officials said, adding that no expenses came from money raised through the “Skills to Succeed” campaign. It’s common for nonprofit organizations to have a kickoff event to launch the public phase of a fundraising campaign.

“When all pledges are received, all money will either be distributed directly to students, support programs that benefit students, or be invested in endowment funds to the long-term benefit of Tri-C students,” foundation officials said via email. 

Officials said $46 million has been distributed to date as part of this effort since 2019. 

Amy Morona covers higher education for Signal Cleveland, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.