With a projected 2010-11 budget shortfall of $5.4 million, SUNY Fredonia has felt the impact of uncertainty and political games in Albany, according to members of the College Council and campus administration
At the quarterly meeting of the College Council Wednesday, SUNY Fredonia President Dennis Hefner called on legislators to stop their "political footballing," noting that actions taken by the Assembly have been "antagonistic toward SUNY."
"We're working hard along with the (SUNY) chancellor in trying to get the legislature to agree to at least give us some flexibility, so that we can compete in the marketplace," Hefner said. "We know the state doesn't have a lot of money. We haven't gone in and asked for a lot of money, but we have asked that they move us out of the political process, which would make a big difference.
Hefner explained Albany politics are preventing SUNY Fredonia from repairing budget shortfalls. Moving tuition decisions out of the political process would give SUNY the opportunity to devise long-term plans to correct budget deficiencies, Hefner said.
"Right now, we need to put plans together - multi-year plans together - to have strategies to the budget gaps that we have now," he said. "And with the political uncertainty, that is almost impossible to do."
University presidents and administrators from across the SUNY system have lobbied state legislators to push the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act.
The legislation would bring change to New York state colleges, especially in the realm of tuition decisions.
Currently, the SUNY Board of Trustees can only raise tuition with approval from the legislature and governor.
"It would allow for tuition to be raised a modest amount each year, rather than waiting three or four years and having big increases," Hefner said. "It would allow us, over time, to start recouping some of the funds. It would eliminate the 'tax on tuition,' and it would eliminate a great deal of red tape and bureaucracy that is totally unnecessary."
The tax on tuition refers to the the $480 that the state skims off of a student's $4,790 tuition to cover other state costs.
State budget cuts have negatively impacted schools and municipalities across the New York. However, no entity has been as severely affected as SUNY has been, over the years.
Twenty years ago, Fredonia State received about $20 million in support from the state. For the 2010-11 budget year, the college will receive $15 million. If inflation is taken into account, Hefner said, two-thirds of state funding to Fredonia has been cut.
While the Western New York delegation has been very supportive, Hefner said, legislators have downstate have not been quite as receptive to the concerns of SUNY.
"The legislators in Western New York... understand the difficulties that SUNY Fredonia faces, and they have been very supportive," he said. "It's when I get to the downstate, especially on the assembly side, that we start running into roadblocks, where for whatever reason, they like the fact that they can use SUNY to play petty politics."
Council Chairman Frank Pagano accused certain legislators of playing "just some stupid game." The assembly has prevented SUNY from moving forward with multi-year planning, he said.
"The senate and the governor are really on board with this program to let the schools set their own tuition and keep their money and not tax the tuition. I think the assembly has been a stumbling block," Pagano said, "and I think it's Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver who for some reason doesn't appreciate the work that the colleges are doing.
"The politicians want to keep a finger on the budget and the disbursements of funds," he added, "and as you know, they don't do a very good job at it. So, I think leaving these decisions to the SUNY Board of Trustees and the individual colleges would make a great deal more sense."
In New York state, Pagano said, it's always about politics. Legislators want power over certain decisions, but tuition and budgetary decisions should be left to the board of trustees, he argued.
"They're playing with students' careers and education," Pagano said about the legislature. "The educational funding in this state has continued to go down, and while I can understand some of it because of budget restraints, I think on the whole that the SUNY budget should be maintained because that's the lifeblood of the state economy."
Tracy Bennett, vice president of administration, presented budget highlights to the College Council. The total 2010-11 consolidated operating budget is $95,590,850. That's a 6.31 percent increase from 2009-10.
The uncertainty of the state budget and the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation act have been a serious challenge during the budgetary process, Bennett said.
"Probably the biggest problem with the whole budget development is the unknown," Bennett said. "We started going into this budget with a shortfall of $2.8 million and subsequent to that we received two budget cuts of approximately another $2.6 million, to bring us up to a shortfall of $5.4 million.
"But really, we don't know where it stops because, I believe, this is our eighth cut in the last two and a half years. That's really the hard part, to be able to plan for these cuts."
The saving grace for Fredonia, Bennett said, is the extremely strong enrollment. The state provides its funding based upon a 5,215 full time equivalent students. SUNY Fredonia's enrollment, however, is actually near 5,600.
Fredonia State gets to keep the tuition of all the students over the state enrollment number. That means the college can fill a portion of their budget gap with a revenue of $2.1 million from over-enrollments.
Bennett also delivered impressive news on utility-cost savings. The university spent $1,015,910 less on utilities during the corresponding period last year, Bennett said. That's a savings of 33.5 percent.
Much of the meeting focused on how SUNY Fredonia can provide the same level of programming to its students with severe budget constraints.
Virginia Horvath, vice president of academic affairs, invited faculty and staff members to deliver presentations on two programs that the university has been able to institute at little to no cost.
Professors Emily Vandette, Christina Jarvis and Sherri Mason delivered a brief overview of the initiatives of the Fredonia Academic Community Engagement Center, or FACE Center. The three professors, along with Political Science Department Chair David Rankin, represent a "bare-bones operation," as Horvath put it, that is working to engage students in service-learning programs.
Music Professor Rob Deemer and hockey coaches Jeff Meredith and T.J. Manastersky joined John McCune of Academic Information Technology and Lisa Melohusky of the Professional Development Center in a presentation of iTunes U, which allows professors and coaches to post educational- and extra-curricular-related content, for free, on the web.
The public can access a portion of iTunes U by downloading iTunes and visiting www.fredonia.edu/itunesu.