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Montana Board of Regents file

A file photo from the Montana University System Board of Regents' September 2018 meeting in Billings.

The Montana Board of Regents heard Wednesday campus representatives make arguments in favor of fee increases and other approvals in advance of votes Thursday on budget items for the upcoming biennial.

For example, Montana Tech will use money to replace servers because equipment is failing, the University of Montana will buy an electronic medical records system in order for speech pathology to meet new accreditation standards, and UM also plans to boost student advising.

The fee proposals come at the same time the regents take up a tuition freeze, a product of Gov. Steve Bullock's budget and the Montana Legislature's agreement to use $24 million of state appropriations to "backfill" resident undergraduate tuition.

Regent Martha Sheehy said the tuition freeze should be celebrated, but many of the items to be funded by fees appear to be part of a 21st century education. As a citizen, she said she would want to support them as standard costs.

"A lot of the things that we're adding on for fees sound to me like things that we as a state have failed to support that are an integral part of the entire educational experience," Sheehy said.

The regents also discussed in particular a proposed mandatory fee for UM called a "Student Success Fee" because it will push the flagship past the recommended threshold of no more than a 3% increase to a more than 5% bump.

Regent Paul Tuss said when he looks at his daughter's bill to attend UM, he knows the reason for each fee because its name is an identifier, such as for athletics or for buildings. But he said a "student success" fee is more nebulous. 

"We could say tuition is a student success fee," Tuss said.

Commissioner Clayton Christian said the regents could amend the item to rename it Thursday. UM President Seth Bodnar said the fee is similar to one already in place at other campuses as a "student support fee," and the fee is backed by students and critical for Missoula.

"We believe that it is imperative that we have high-touch — you know, some might even use the term intrusive — advising," Bodnar said.

Sheehy said she applauded UM's movement toward professional advising and said she believed the effort would be worthwhile.

"I think that the strongest link to completion and retention is good advising," Sheehy said.

At the meeting, the regents also discussed the value of performance-based funding. Montana University System campuses get a portion of their money based on their success in retaining and graduating students, including at-risk students.

This coming fiscal year, Montana State University–Billings will not be allocated any of the $1.4 million for which it was eligible through performance funding, according to a report for the Commissioner's Office. Sheehy said the model feels unfair when a new leader in Billings is making positive changes yet is still out that money.

"It's keeping down some of the universities that are trying very, very hard to come up," Sheehy said.

Christian, though, said legislators want to see performance funding in place. He also said performance funding is tied to only a portion of state dollars, and the model does call attention to areas of weakness that need improvement.

"We will do the best we can to address those deficiencies," Christian said.

Thursday, regents also will take up proposals for building renovations and construction. Although several items are on the agenda, Regent Casey Lozar noted the university system likely has more than $200 million in deferred maintenance, and a strategy is still needed to address that issue.

The meeting will continue Thursday and is available via live video.

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