The University of Montana campus

The University of Montana campus in Missoula is pictured in this file photo.

The University of Montana is projected this fiscal year to close roughly half of the $10 million budget shortfall it needs to make up in the next several years, according to a UM official. 

"I hear people say we're not making progress, but we are," said Rosi Keller, vice president of administration and finance. "We still have a ways to go, but we are definitely making progress."

Thursday, Keller presented UM's 2019 fiscal year finances to the UM budget committee following approval of campus budgets last week by the Montana Board of Regents. She also answered questions after the meeting about how the budget reflects other efforts at UM, such as a plan to reduce faculty.

UM projects $129.4 million in general fund operating revenue for the 2019 fiscal year. In addition to tuition and state support, the revenue includes a transfer of $7.8 million from unspent funds last fiscal year, investment income, and enrollment reserves, an infusion Keller said UM anticipated making.

Throughout the meeting, the finance vice president repeatedly pointed to the enrollment drop as the reason UM's finances don't hit benchmarks. For instance, UM spends $14,109 per student, roughly $1,000 more than the system average and 18 percent more than it spent in the 2015 fiscal year.

"It's just the result of the decline in enrollment," Keller said.

At the same time, she said the campus is making progress. In January, UM President Seth Bodnar announced the flagship needed to close a roughly $10 million budget gap over the next four years, and Keller said after the meeting the recent voluntary staff and faculty buyouts and other savings would close some $5 million of that shortfall.

However, she said the $10 million does not account for inflationary increases, such as salary bumps and utility hikes, nor does it reflect any additional revenue, such as for increased enrollment. She also said even with the transfer of funds this year, UM has "several million" dollars in reserve, a concern raised at the Board of Regents last week for campuses in general.

UM has been working to address a budget shortfall due to an enrollment slide; it has lost 28.5 percent of its full-time students from spring 2011 to last spring. This summer, the campus boosted summer enrollment, and its projected loss of freshmen this fall isn't as steep as it has been on average the last few years.

In May, Bodnar released a proposal recommending 50 faculty reductions, and the provost's office will request more specific budget goals next week. The approved budget shows UM lost 16 contract faculty from the actual 2018 fiscal year budget to the current projected budget, and it has lost 13 percent of faculty since 2015.

It's budgeted for 571 faculty this year. 

However, Keller said the 16 losses don't go toward the 50 cuts proposed earlier. UM is budgeted for 1,191 total faculty and staff full time equivalents, compared to 1,260 it had budgeted for last fiscal year; its actual faculty and staff total landed at 1,191 last year.

Although the overall general fund has ticked up 1 percent, Keller noted it has dropped nearly $12 million since the 2015 fiscal year to $129.9 million in 2019, and UM already has made significant decreases in operations.

The campus spends some 88 percent on personnel compared to the target 75 percent, but Keller said UM is aware of the imbalance and is working to save money on salaries going forward.

She also said UM has budgeted conservatively.

At the meeting, one committee member said staff were concerned about the drop in international student enrollment and asked if UM had started recruiting overseas again after letting an international recruiter job go unfilled. International students represent full fare as nonresidents, and have been sought after across the country.

Vice president for enrollment management Cathy Cole said she had hired an international recruiter, and the professional was already at work in Asia. "She's on the ground. And making good progress."

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