University of Montana campus, Missoula

The University of Montana's Main Hall in Missoula is seen in this file photo.

TOMMY MARTINO, Missoulian

The Montana University System is preparing for a budget reduction of up to 10 percent — or nearly $45 million total for the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years.

The projection is preliminary and depends on actual state revenue.

But spokesman Kevin McRae said the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education has asked campuses to prepare for cuts of as much as 10 percent.

"We haven't asked them to submit program cuts to us but we are actively asking them to begin preparing for these possible scenarios," said McRae, deputy commissioner for communications.

In May, the Montana Board of Regents approved tuition changes that mostly increased the price for students attending state colleges and universities. For example, at the University of Montana, tuition and fees went up 13 percent for lower division students.

McRae said he does not believe the regents will increase tuition for the spring semester. However, he said the regents may need to adjust tuition rates for fall 2018 despite the recently approved increases.

"It would be unusual because the regents normally set tuition for two years at a time," McRae said.

He also stressed the possible reduction of 5 percent to as much as 10 percent — as much as $22.3 million and $22.4 million for the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years — is subject to factors that are still unknown.

***

A 10 percent reduction in state appropriations to the University of Montana could mean a cut of some $6 million a year, or $12 million for both years, in a worst case scenario, McRae confirmed. In Commissioner's Office budget documents, state appropriations to UM were listed as $61.1 million this school year and $59.9 million in the coming school year.

UM communications director Paula Short did not confirm that the Missoula flagship was discussing a $6 million reduction each year and said Tuesday that she did not have specific data. However, Short said UM is evaluating its options.

"Our top priority will continue to be our students and delivery of the curriculum and services that support student success," Short said in an email. "There are no easy decisions in making additional reductions to an already lean budget. However, we realize all state agencies are in similar circumstances."

She did not address whether UM has any reserves left to tap.

UM has been experiencing budget challenges because of a persistent enrollment decline. Last week, preliminary freshmen registration numbers were higher than UM had budgeted, but the campus is still planning on an overall decrease, according to the administration. 

***

State Sen. Dick Barrett said he is concerned about the possibility of tuition increases for a couple of reasons, including student debt. A recent report from LendEDU pegged the average debt of students who borrow in Montana at nearly $31,000; LendEDU describes itself as a financial marketplace with a goal of creating transparency to help students manage their money.

The other reason Barrett is concerned is a tuition bump could thwart UM's push to increase enrollment. Historically, declines in state support have forced the university system to increase tuition, and the trend over the long term has meant a shift away from state support and toward tuition, said Barrett, an economist.

If the university system tries to make up two years of shortfalls but doesn't up tuition this year, he said, the jump in fall 2018 could be significant.

"If that was the response in this case, you're looking at some pretty large tuition increases," said Barrett, a Missoula Democrat and retired UM professor.

Short did not address what UM's position on a possible tuition increase would be. She said budget discussions at UM have been preliminary.

"As additional direction and clarification becomes available from OCHE (the Commissioner's Office), we will make more concrete plans to meet UM's share of the budget reduction," Short said in her email.

Interim vice president for finance and administration Rosi Keller could not be reached for comment through a message left with an assistant in her office.

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In recent years, UM lost personnel to budget cuts, although it's also spending more of its budget on personnel this year, a trend the Commissioner's Office wants the campus to reverse.

UM offered buyouts to faculty this summer, and it may make another round of offers. The university counts 41 fewer tenured or tenure-track faculty from last year to this year because of early retirements and other departures.

The administration also notified some 34 lecturers who teach on a year-to-year contract that they won't be rehired come spring, although the faculty union filed a grievance alleging UM failed to offer those instructors proper notice. The grievance is pending.

McRae said he does not anticipate the state budget reductions will result in more personnel cuts at UM before the end of the semester.

However, UM is in the midst of a plan to set program priorities, and the outcome is expected to identify areas where the university should spend money — and ones where it shouldn't. McRae said the result will inform staffing decisions for the remainder of the academic year and the next school year.

"This fall semester simply becomes even more crucial in terms of UM analyzing and reaching decisions by the end of this fall semester for then how to proceed," McRae said.

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The Montana Board of Regents will take up campus budgets next week, and at this point, McRae said the regents will proceed with finances that do not include reductions.

If reductions do become necessary following recommendations of the Legislative Finance Committee later in September, he said the Commissioner's Office will submit proposed changes for regents to consider in October or November.

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Reporter for the Missoulian