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Main Hall, University of Montana file

Main Hall on the University of Montana campus.

The University of Montana has reduced its deficit from roughly $10 million last school year to a projected $4 million for the 2020 fiscal year.

Shortfalls in the flagship's operating budget from declining enrollment have been a focus for President Seth Bodnar since he took office in January 2018. Last week, he offered the budget update at a gathering hosted by the Missoula Downtown Association and the UM Foundation.

Bodnar also noted he anticipated an uptick in freshman enrollment. 

Later in the week, UM vice president for operations and finance Paul Lasiter offered more detail on the budget picture for the campus. The Montana Board of Regents will take up the budget at its September 11-12 meeting in Butte.

In the 2019 fiscal year, UM planned on a $7.3 million deficit, Lasiter said. But he said UM took in about $3.4 million more than expected, spent roughly $4 million less than anticipated, and ended the fiscal year with a surplus of about $500,000.

The budget crunch comes as a result of enrollment challenges. UM has lost 34% of its full-time students since 2011 and has been trying to improve recruitment and retention.

Lasiter said the projected $4 million deficit for the current fiscal year is “based on best guesses” on metrics like tuition revenue that could change. But he said the university has $11 million to $12 million in reserves to cover the shortfall.

It remains unclear how faculty and staffing will fare this fiscal year, which runs from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020. Last fall, UM announced plans to shed 58 faculty (without cutting tenured positions) and cut $5 million by 2021.

Lasiter said that the 2020 budget would contain “nothing new in terms of reductions,” beyond the implementation of plans announced last fall.

From the 2015 fiscal year to 2019, UM lost 13% of its faculty, or 87 full-time faculty equivalents (not all faculty work full time). Over the same period, UM lost 18% of its classified staff, or 97 FTE, although staff account for a much smaller portion of the budget.

UM declined to provide the preliminary 2020 budget or the faculty and staff counts it anticipates for the year. However, Lasiter said the new budget contains “significant investments in enrollment, student outreach and advising,” stressing the importance of increasing enrollment and improving retention to grow revenue and improve the university.

While he considers a $4 million deficit next year healthy, Lasiter said “that stability is off of an expenditure base that is too low, in my opinion.

"We’re stable, but we’ve got to grow.”

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