Thomas, Walker weigh in on higher-ed cuts

Truman State University is facing a possible decrease in state funding for the 2018-19 school year as the state’s budget for the 2019 fiscal year makes its way through the General Assembly.

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens has proposed significant cuts to the core funding of state universities, including a 7.7 percent cut for Truman. This would be the third round of funding cuts since the beginning of 2017, after the governor’s office withheld a portion of the University’s funding in January 2017 and passed a budget with lower core funding for the 2018 fiscal year, beginning this July.

University President Sue Thomas said after the state withholdings announced in January 2017, the University stopped spending money on non-personnel costs. For example, the University had planned to buy a new bus for sports teams with money from the general fund, but that was put on hold when the withholdings went into effect. Thomas said the bus was eventually purchased with money raised from the student athletic fee.

To deal with permanent reductions in state funding, Thomas said the University offered a retirement incentive to faculty members and examined staff and faculty positions left vacant to see if they needed to be filled. She also said the University made an effort to become more energy-efficient, which cut down on energy costs. Some buildings, like Fair Apartments, were decommissioned to save on utility and upkeep costs.

Thomas said the University has been working to ensure budget challenges can be handled in a way that does not compromise the mission or the identity of the institution. She said when the University learned there would be a substantial cut in state funding for the 2017-18 school year, a committee comprised of 75 students, faculty and staff met for three sessions to discuss the University’s priorities and distinctiveness.

“It was really focused on, ‘Who is Truman? What’s important to us? Where are we going?’ so if we’re going to have to reallocate money, we want to make sure that we’re doing it strategically and to fit with our priorities,” Thomas said. “The whole purpose of it is that, if we come to the point that we have to start making these very difficult decisions, we want to make sure that we’re doing it very strategically and focused on allocating resources to our priorities, so we are doing the best and the highest with the resources that we have.”

Thomas said now that the governor’s budget recommendations are available, Truman will begin preparing for the worst case-scenario so departments don’t have unplanned cuts or expenses at the last minute. She said a surcharge like the one that was instituted during the spring 2017 semester is not currently being considered.

Thomas said Truman’s planning process for the cuts will start with examining financial scenarios the University could be in. She said planning is a collaborative effort as the administration consults with deans, the provost, and department heads to see where money can be conserved.

Thomas said legislation currently stops state universities from raising tuition annually more than the consumer price index — a measure of inflation — from the previous year without a waiver from the state Department of Higher Education. She said there is currently a shell bill, a general bill to be amended later, in the State Senate to raise the tuition cap above the CPI. Thomas said this was an important conversation to have at this time, but the shell bill does little more than start that conversation.

Thomas said a tuition increase would only come if all other options had been explored and there was still a difference that needed to be covered. Even at that point, she said tuition would only be raised to a level necessary to meet the gap.

“We will only raise tuition as high as we think we need to to maintain the health of our institution,” Thomas said. “We don’t want to put all the expenses of the institution on the backs of students. We don’t want to raise tuition one more penny than we think we need to given all the efficiencies we’ve put in place and all the innovations and changes we’ve put in place.”

Thomas said Kirksville’s delegates in the Missouri General Assembly — Sen. Brian Munzlinger and representatives Craig Redmon and Nate Walker — are supportive of Truman and higher education in the state. She said groups from the House and the Senate have expressed their support of the state’s higher education institutions and have demonstrated its value and positive economic impact to the General Assembly.

Walker said the current budget proposal is a starting point, and the budget is being examined and worked on by committees in the Assembly. He said he and many others in the Assembly recognize the importance of higher education and especially the mission of Truman as the state’s only public liberal arts institution.

“I think that Gov. Greitens has been somewhat shortsighted in his thinking with this budget,” Walker said. “My colleagues in the House of both parties have been very concerned about these deep cuts proposed to the core funding for higher education in the state of Missouri, and I would anticipate that as the budget process proceeds in the House, you’re going to see a markup of more money for higher education.”

Walker said other state programs are getting cut as well, including programs for those with disabilities.

Walker said there is talk in the Assembly about raising the tuition cap by 2 percent or higher, and such a policy might be necessary if the proposed reductions in core funding are adopted.

“Everything’s out on the table, but we have to make sure we don’t slice the budget for higher education to the point where we have mediocre schools,” Walker said. “Education is a key to a strong economic base for our state, and it’s also to give the students, the young people, an opportunity to get some higher education that is affordable, and Truman State University has worked very hard … to be one of the best buys for education, and it seems like we’re getting penalized for our efficiencies here at Truman State University, and that shouldn’t happen.”