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Waiting for the cut: Colleges make space for decreasing budgets

Higher education leaders in northeast North Dakota are searching their budgets for any fiscal slack as they look to likely reductions in state funding.

Alice Brekke, UND vice president for finance and operations, said the university is in the midst of an internal planning process to determine the best means to handle the prospect of future budget cuts.

"Exactly what it'll look like at end of day, I don't think any of us can answer that," said Brekke of the final amount to be cut from UND specifically and the North Dakota University System as a whole. "We'll work through a variety of scenarios and there'll be a lot of conversation over the next three months or so."

Leaders from across the North Dakota University System gathered in Bismarck last week to testify on behalf of their institutions before the Senate Appropriations Committee. UND led off the group to make a case for the university to protect its funding in a climate of shrinking state revenues prompted by weak economic performance of the state's main commodities.

By the end of Monday, Gov. Doug Burgum had announced his budget recommendations to update those made by outgoing Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who had suggested a 15 percent cut to higher education funding. Burgum's proposed budget called for an additional 5 percent, $31 million reduction to higher education spending.

The reductions haven't come from nowhere. Last spring, Dalrymple advised state agencies to build out their budgets for the 2017-19 biennium at a level to anticipate receiving only 90 percent of their 2015-17 appropriations.

UND had previously submitted a biennial budget for 2017-19 reflecting that 10 percent reduction in general fund levels for a cut of about $16.6 million over the two-year period. A budget planning overview stated additional cuts could be possible, though it pointed out lagging enrollment numbers for the current fiscal year would hurt tuition revenue.

Brekke said ongoing discussions within departments and among divisions have sought ways to consolidate operations for better efficiency. Throughout the winter, areas of the university have been building out budgets to accommodate potential reductions of 4, 8 and 12 percent from the 2017 base appropriated budgets. Last week, UND announced employee buyout programs to encourage voluntary separations from the university to reduce staffing costs and decrease the number of any future involuntary workforce cuts.

Mayville State University

At Mayville State University, early separation programs have already led to the resignation of five faculty members. Steve Bensen, MSU vice president of business affairs, said those five came from a faculty pool of only about 50 employees.

Though dwindling budgets have left a mark so far, Bensen said university leadership doesn't feel reductions will affect program offerings to the point of turning away prospective students.

"We're really not that broad as it stands, when you think about our size," he said of MSU, which lists a current enrollment of about 1,110 students. "We don't want to jeopardize the viability of our programs, as that will definitely hurt enrollment, so we'll do what we have to do without doing that."

Beyond voluntary separations, Bensen said the university eliminated two faculty and one staff member in a reduction in force. The seven total affected faculty positions have been left unfilled.

Additionally, Bensen said one MSU employee has been moved from full-time to part-time status while the work of another staff position is now being done at UND through a sharing agreement between the two universities.

Reductions in personnel should yield about $1.4 million in estimated savings for the 2017-19 biennium, a sum Bensen said would make a substantial dent in the necessary cuts. Though academic offerings have been largely untouched, Bensen said MSU has already cut one program in computer information systems, as it wasn't attracting sufficient student interest.

Despite the changes on campus, Bensen emphasized the university wasn't looking at the current budgeting reality as a "doom and gloom" situation.

"This is a setback, but we're going to make it work," he said.

Moving forward, Bensen said it's not entirely clear how the budget reduction suggested by Burgum could be applied to MSU.

Lake Region State College

Doug Darling, president of Lake Region State College, shares the same logistical questions about the latest proposed budget cut.

Darling said his presentation in Bismarck last week went fine overall despite a "somber mood" in the hearing chamber in terms of the outlook for the revenue forecast. The information Darling shared with the Senate members was based on Dalrymple's outgoing budget, as Burgum's numbers hadn't been released at that point. By Friday, Darling still wasn't yet sure what to make of the most recent budget recommendations.

"We've seen absolutely no detail on that other than what he proposed in terms of dollars for the system as a whole," he said. "We're trying not to panic here, we're just waiting to see the exact dollars."

Darling said Lake Region had already submitted a budget accommodating the earlier suggested 10 percent reduction. Though Dalrymple's outgoing budget introduced the prospect of further reductions than even that level, Darling said the university's adjustments had been made with enough contingency to limit the impact of deeper budget cuts on the student body.

However, if the reductions continue, Darling said he didn't know if it would be possible to avoid hurting enrollment numbers.

In order to reduce costs, Darling said turnovers among employees have not been refilled.

Lake Region spokeswoman Erin Wood said all of the academic departments have been "very frugal" in their own budgets. Darling said budgeting needs have slashed out-of-state travel, greatly eliminated equipment and supply costs and discontinued low-enrollment courses, such as some humanities electives.

Though Darling said he understood the challenges of the Legislature to balance the budget in light of sluggish state revenues, he described the situation for higher education as a "Catch-22."

"Part of our mission is to meet the employers' needs in the region," he said. "If we have an employer that needs us to train employees in X, Y or Z and we don't have the budget for it, we lack the flexibility to deliver."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers county, health and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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