Jan 202010

By Aaron Hedge
Collegian Special Report

Josh Pasley followed Matt McClain down a sepia-tone hallway in the Veterinary Teaching Hospital with an 8-foot utilities ladder under his right arm last semester. McClain carried a nearly empty box of Panasonic single tube light bulbs.

It’s a largely thankless job.

“We walk in and change the lights,” Pasley said, walking down the corridor. “No one says anything, and we walk out.”

Pasley and McClain came into the Facilities Services North building on the corner of East Drive and Pitkin Street every morning, processed their tube replacement orders and navigated the halls of many of CSU’s buildings to illuminate the darkened light bays.

The two students –– Pasley, a senior health and human sciences major at CSU, and McClain, an undeclared sophomore at Front Range Community College –– said the work allows them flexibility in planning their schedules around classes. They have been doing this for three years.

But at the end of October, the department they worked under became yet another victim of CSU’s crippling budget cuts that have state lawmakers and university administrators wringing their frustrated financial hands over how to fix a number of pervasive budget woes.

Facilities Management sustained a $1.8 million budget slash announced by the university in the middle of the semester. For zoning maintenance –– which, in addition to changing light bulbs across campus, maintained the university’s heating, ventilating and air conditioning, or HVAC, systems –– it was lights out.

Earl Thomas, the director of the program, learned of the cut from an August 21 e-mail from human resources saying, “The shop will be disbanded and these duties will be dispersed throughout other trades shops, but the frequency of maintenance will be reduced with priority given to critical equipment.”

The reduced frequency of maintenance, department employees said, will lead to drafty classrooms and deteriorating equipment.

“In the future, I think that there will be big problems with these buildings,” said Shona Pischer, who had worked in the department changing HVAC filters for 12 years. “It may not show now, but it’ll show.”

CSU braces for more cuts

A note in the fifth slide of a PowerPoint budget projection that CSU President Tony Frank presented to faculty near the end of last semester reads: “Not So Good.”

It sits above a line graph illustrating a dramatic decline in federal stimulus and state educational and general funding for CSU –– $90 million, or almost 10 percent of its overall $850 million budget, over the next two years.

day2_graph1The pessimism conveyed in that note certainly isn’t characteristic for Frank, whose presentations usually contain a degree of ironic optimism.

The second bullet point in the seventh slide reads:

“Many of the choices we would need to consider to emerge financially viable from such a fiscal crisis might, in a variety of ways, be harmful to parts of our university community –– but our primary responsibility would be to emerge with a financially viable university that maintained as much quality as possible in our academic programs.”

Experts of Colorado’s financial crisis say the state faces an incredible challenge in untangling its complex and conflicting fiscal policy to ensure that many public programs, including higher education, survive.

day2_graph2The troubling decline in public funding reflects a national trend of states beginning to defund their colleges and universities.

In the last two years, states cut 6.8 percent, a total of $1.3 billion, from their higher education budgets, according to a newly released study from Grapevine, which has published a national report on tax funding for higher education for the last five decades.

The same report says Colorado cut more than 9 percent of its higher education budget. And while that number is far smaller than in some states –– South Dakota cut more than 22 percent –– Colorado is frequently ranked at the bottom of the barrel in national studies in terms of funding for its colleges and universities.

How bad is it?

Front Range Community College is facing a bizarre conundrum. Its constituency is growing by leaps and bounds, but the school itself might soon be extinct.

Amid a chorus of budget cut announcements from the governor’s office, FRCC lost a huge portion of its public funding over the summer when its $22 million budget was reduced to $16 million.

Andy Dorsey, the man who leads the college, says the cuts might just bleed his campus to the point of no return, despite ample interest in its programs.

As state lawmakers are gearing up for the rest of the legislative session to cope with a $2 billion budget shortfall, and higher education is one of the only pieces lawmakers are allowed to reduce, the cuts are a pervasive problem for institutions statewide.

“That scares me,” Dorsey said, “and I think it should scare the citizens of Colorado because the longer economic competitiveness of the state is clearly at risk if we’re not able to provide opportunities for folks.”

Federal stimulus dollars are filling the hole for now, but no one can see past the haze of fiscal year 2011, when that money runs out.

Dorsey said if the financial clouds don’t lift within the next five years, his budget will dwindle to unsustainable lows, as will finances for many of the state’s colleges and universities.

“I have no good crystal ball that says how much of that is at risk, but it’s not hard for me to imagine Front Range going from $22 million in state funding to $10 million, $11 million in state funds,” he said in an interview.

So for now, the college is eliminating redundant programs and asking its employees to work longer hours for the same amount of pay to streamline its budget and accommodate the growing student population.

Front Range is not the only school anticipating 2011, which lawmakers are calling “the cliff.”

Bracing for more crippling cuts, which have been announced almost quarterly over the last year, colleges and universities across the state, including big brothers CSU and CU-Boulder, are working to streamline their budgets and cut any unnecessary bureaucracy. The larger institutions have even proposed partial privatization.

But university and student government officials have said since the discussions began that a privatized CSU would be untenable as it would become far less accessible to the Colorado community, which goes against its land grant mission.

“We’re not going to become privatized,” said CSU Interim Provost Rick Miranda in a phone interview. “That’s just not going to happen.”

day2_graph3Long-time CSU political science professor John Straayer, who specializes in state and local government, warned last semester that, if nothing is done soon, it’s unclear how long higher education in Colorado will last.

“You’ve got 5-year-old kids. Do you want colleges and universities for them when they get out of high school?” Straayer said. “Because if you don’t do something, they’re not gonna be here.”

But the picture painted for the next few years by state administration is not pretty.

This year, announcements of program cuts have poured regularly from Gov. Bill Ritter’s office and trickled down to the CSU community in the form of e-mail messages from Frank, telling students what they could mean for the university.

Last year, the state announced devastating cuts to many programs almost quarterly. The first slashed more than $1.45 billion from the state’s general fund, a pool of taxpayer cash. Three subsequent shortfalls have brought that total to more than $2 billion.

Ritter, who has quickly lost favor among voters for a number of controversial budget decisions he has made in recent months, told Colorado in his final state of the state address at the beginning of the year that lawmakers would have to continue making “unpopular” decisions.

Along with cuts to state spending and small programs, the slashes mean a $377 million shortfall in this year’s $706 million general fund budget for higher education.

Originally, legislators intended to use federal stimulus dollars to bridge the gap until summer 2012, but those funds will now be gone in 2011, and when that happens, the state may have to approve still larger tuition increases.

Experts call it being “squeezed out” of the state’s financial pie, which is happening to the state’s programs that are not mandated to grow. The problem stems from a long line of conflicting laws that require lawmakers to give more spending authority to some programs from a budget with a fixed size.

Streamlining the institutions

University and college officials are left scrambling to find a balance between access and affordability, and global and national competitiveness.

They are also looking for alternative funding streams, which could include ramping up ongoing capital initiatives and focusing on bringing in research dollars, which typically can’t be spent directly on the academic colleges and university operating expenses.

At the same time, they are telling individual departments to brace for devastating cuts.

Small, non-academic programs at CSU are feeling the sting of having to move forward with smaller workforces and leaner operating budgets.

Human resources officials say the university is trying to maintain spots for all of its employees.
The employees in the zoning maintenance department that closed last semester were dispersed to other programs. Pasley and McClain kept changing lights under the brand of another department.

Pischer and the six other full-time employees –– some who feed families from meager salaries that, in that department, average about $20,000 annually –– were also relocated.

Pischer and Becky Harvey, the first two women to work in zoning maintenance and long-time coworkers and friends, now have job security in custodial, cleaning dormitories.

day2_graph4Dan Davey, who had helped Pischer and Harvey maintain the campus’ complex fan rooms that house CSU’s HVAC filter systems, now works on new building projects for the department’s “revenue crew.”

But Facilities Management at CSU alone let go of 50 employees this year, said Brian Chase, the director of the department.

And Facilities Management is not alone. Every department here was told to brace for a possible 17 percent cut over the next two years.

Frank said the administration would field the biggest percentage of the cuts, which he anticipated to be about 5 percent on average in each department after extensive conversations with state and university finance officials last week.

The university will hold a public forum to discuss every program’s budget, during which the deans of each school and the directors of each department will present preliminary budgets, which will include the cuts, on Jan. 27.

More forums will be held throughout the semester.

Six of CSU’s eight college deans did not return calls last week from the Collegian requesting predictions of what they would cut. The other two deferred comment to the university’s public relations department, saying it was too early to comment on the fiscal year 2011 budget.

Brad Bohlander, the university’s chief spokesperson said officials can only comment on generalities for now.

But anecdotes from more than a dozen policy experts interviewed for this report saying higher education will not last much longer indicate that the cuts could mean a much different model for public institutions.

And an ongoing trend of steeply declining revenues and appropriations corroborate those sentiments.

Officials confident in state leadership despite dismal outlook

If the economy doesn’t improve significantly and Colorado doesn’t find a way to offer more funding for colleges and universities, state lawmakers and experts say institutions will grow even leaner.

“Unless we get some relief next spring, it’s gonna be a very difficult year for higher education, I’m afraid,” said state Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins.

But the top two employees for the CSU System remain faithful that the state will not ignore the higher education system and have expressed confidence in its leadership’s ability to trailblaze a new funding path.

“We are not cowed,” said recently inaugurated CSU System Chancellor Joe Blake, a longtime advocate for higher education funding initiatives in Colorado. “We’re not back in the back of the cave waiting for sunlight.”

Projects Editor Aaron Hedge can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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