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Challenges Ahead as Higher Education Stares Down Budget Cuts
FVCC to contend with possible cut in state funds, record enrollment
A pedestrian walks across Flathead Valley Community College Campus in Kalispell. - File photo by Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
The Montana University System is staring down the barrel of a 5 percent cut in state funding as part of a statewide effort to battle a dwindling budget. With many campuses seeing significant recession-induced population increases, however, a budget cut may mean having to do more with less.

The Board of Regents, the single authority for university spending, agreed in January that $7.65 million in cuts might be possible for fiscal year 2011 if the budget problem still persists.

And while the major universities and colleges are taking the brunt of the cuts, community colleges may also feel some of the sting. Chuck Jensen, the chief financial officer at Flathead Valley Community College, said the latest estimates show that a 5 percent cut for the three community colleges in the system would equal $475,019.

For FVCC, which has its largest ever student body population at over 2,800, a 5-percent reduction in the 2010-2011 budget would currently mean about $271,500, Jensen said.

Figuring out those numbers is about as far as the college has officially gotten when it comes to budget slimming considerations, Jensen said.

“It’s a pretty basic number right now,” Jensen said. “There’s still a lot of conversation to be had.”

FVCC President Jane Karas said though they are in the beginning stages of analyzing the budget, the college will do what it can to keep the teaching staff in place to provide quality education for the students.

And since the numbers are in constant flux, the current estimates might not even be applicable when the final decisions are made, Karas said.

“We’re looking at all of the options. We don’t know what the dollar amount will be right now,” Karas said, adding that she envisions any cost-saving measures would be “whatever will have the least impact on the school and the community.”

The major university campuses in Bozeman and Missoula are taking a similar, cautious approach. Montana State University President Waded Cruzado said the school held a brainstorming session to come up with money-saving strategies. The list, she said, has over 140 items on it and is waiting to be sifted through.

Cruzado also asserted that it is important for the university community to not focus so much on the idea of cuts that they are blind to other solutions, such as federal grants. Last month, the MSU campuses requested over $40 million in federal earmarks for various projects and programs in 2011.

“All things considered, we are very lucky that we are having this conversation now in 2010,” Cruzado said, comparing Montana’s proposed 5-percent reduction in funding to the cuts in other states that have been upwards of 20 percent.

Cutting staff would be a last resort, she said; the bottom item in a long list of other considerations. She added that the growing student body on her campus is most likely a result of the recession and the university will keep the quality of education at the forefront during the budget considerations.

“We are looking at every possible option,” Cruzado said.

One option may be starting up a comprehensive distance-learning program, she said, which could reach the more rural areas of the state. But it would take time to train faculty and staff as well as install the necessary equipment, she noted.

The University of Montana in Missoula, which is looking at a potential $1.7 million cut from its base budget, is openly considering a four-day workweek for faculty, raising tuition and lowering the number of credits to be covered by the blanket tuition cost.

In a campus convocation on Jan. 25, UM President George Dennison said the budget numbers are not yet set in stone, but the university should prepare not only for cuts but also the loss of federal stimulus dollars in 2012.

“We had a very tight but balanced budget prior to these recent developments, and we have very few options to consider as we prepare for further budget reductions,” Dennison said at the convocation.

Jensen said FVCC will submit a revised budget to the Board of Regents in September, and there is a chance that the recent influx of tuition payments from new students might be able to buffer some of the budgetary pressure. Full-time student numbers are up by 31 percent, Jensen said, but the increase will probably not solve the whole problem.

Many campuses across the state are in the same situation, he said, and most are still trying to figure out where they stand.

“That’s the challenge we’re faced with,” Jensen said. “We have probably the most dramatic enrollment growth. We’re faced with the same issue of providing the same services with dwindling state funds.”
 
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