As part of the state's efforts to reduce spending as revenue projections worsen, the Montana Board of Regents on Thursday unanimously agreed to $7.56 million in proposed spending cuts in the Montana University System if necessary in fiscal year 2011.

Even programs dear to Gov. Brian Schweitzer, such as distance learning and the Governor's Post Secondary Scholarship program, didn't escape the chopping block.

The regents, though autonomous with sole spending authority over the university system, applauded the governor's fiscal prudence and volunteered to identify possible reductions. Regents Chairman Stephen Barrett stressed that "it's not a plan that's set in concrete at this time" and said there are many steps still in the process.

The regents set an overall spending decrease of $5.2 million among all the state's campuses. The rest of the proposed $7.56 million will come from targeted cuts.

Each campus will identify its own cuts, and most have already begun belt-tightening.

Of all the proposed cuts approved by the regents Thursday, asking the campuses to cut their base budgets is the toughest, said Sheila Stearns, commissioner of higher education.

"It's within that dollar amount that you may actually have to close a class for 30 students," she said. "The others are hard, but that's the hardest."

Among the largest of the targeted cuts are:

  • Administration programs ($130,000).
  • Student assistance ($668,824).
  • Community colleges ($436,774).
  • Tribal college assistance ($22,050).
  • University and college campuses ($5.2 million).

***

At UM, administrators are preparing to cut roughly $1.7 million from the base budget in fiscal year 2011. Earlier this week, President George Dennison proposed changes that would reduce spending $7.85 million in the next three years if state and federal revenues continue to decline.

Those proposed changes - such as a four-day work week and a 1 percent tuition increase on all students - not only should solve the fiscal challenges in the current biennium, but also the impending loss of federal stimulus dollars in the next. (The 2009 Legislature funded higher education using one-time-only federal stimulus dollars, which will disappear come fiscal year 2012.)

UM's plan also aims to rebuild its $1 million reserve account, which was depleted in the current fiscal year, Dennison said Thursday.

Montana State University is looking at employee furloughs and cutting back bus services. MSU student body president Teresa Snyder spoke out this week against moving to a four-day work week, saying that it would hurt the quality of education and delay graduation for students.

"While it is fabulous for recreational opportunities, it would diminish the quality of education and inconvenience students," she said. "You'd have more classes at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. and that is a major inconvenience for students."

She urged MSU administrators to look at more targeted reductions as opposed to across-the-board cuts.

The list of proposed cutbacks approved by the regents Thursday included nearly $58,000 from the Forest and Conservation Experiment Station at UM at a time when bark beetles are wreaking havoc on Montana's forests, according to a statement included in Thursday's agenda.

Reductions of up to 42 percent in the travel budget would significantly affect research because so much of it is field-based, said director Perry Brown. It may result in suspension of some experiments, while others might not be started, he said.

The proposed cut also puts more stress on bringing in outside grants to fill potential funding gaps so as not to reduce faculty, he said.

***

During Thursday's conference call, several of the regents stressed the need to come up with "adept cuts" rather than "middling." Divest in underperforming programs, encouraged Regent Todd Buchanan. Look for ineffective programs, added Regent Clayton Christian.

However, Regent Janine Pease expressed concern with campuses that have experienced increases in enrollment over the years, such as UM, but that haven't received more state money to educate the additional students.

Asking universities serving more students to make additional cuts is a "double penalty" and a "terrific blow" to these schools, she said.

"We really need to be sensitive to increases in enrollment," Pease said. "I'm really concerned about placing some of our institutions in financial jeopardy."

As part of UM's proposed plan this week, the university addresses this issue, suggesting state dollars be tied to students, and that the flow of state money more equitably represent the fluctuations in enrollment.

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com.

 

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