New student fee to cover budget shortfall

Calling an early morning meeting of the Georgia Board of Regents, the 18 member body voted on Dec. 3 to plan for an eight percent cut of the university system budget.

The budget reduction measures included a $100 mandatory student fee for the 2009 spring semester. Early last fall, the Regents took steps to plan for a shortfall of $136 million or six percent of their budget.

However on Dec. 2, the Regent’s latest assessment of the economy convinced them to begin planning for an eight percent budget cut.

“The steps that have been taken up to this point have been done to spare [students] any reduction of quality or any inconvenience, because [students] are our primary reason for existing,” said Tom Daniel, senior vice chancellor for the Office of External Affairs.

The plan for an eight percent budget cut calls for the deferral of maintenance, a reduction of the employer contribution for employee HMO insurance plans and a mandatory fee to be paid by all students.

These policies will be added to the actions, like a reduction in classroom activities and operational support costs, already implemented under last fall’s plan.

Directly impacting all university students, the mandatory student fee requires students attending Tech, the University of Georgia (UGA), Georgia State University and the Medical College of Georgia to pay an additional $100, students at four-year institutions pay $75 and students at two-year institutions pay $50.

The eight percent budget cut will take $182 million out of the university system budget, a $46 million increase added on to the six percent cut. Of this, $20 million will be covered by the mandatory student fee.

“The cut for the university system is now up to over $180 million. Today is the first step that is directly impacting [the students] in a more dynamic way,” Daniel said.

The funds generated by the new student fee will be added to each school’s operating budgets, allowing each institution the flexibility to use the funds where it sees fit.

The 11th hour nature of the new budget cut proposal and its early next-day vote caught the attention of not just Tech’s but also the UGA’s Student Government Association.

When the vote on the new budget cuts were announced, both members of Tech and UGA’s student governments made their way to the Dec. 3 meeting in order to voice protest over the introduction of the mandatory student fee provision.

“We feel it is our responsibility to express the reasons for our unequivocal opposition to this proposal on behalf of the students at our respective institutions,” said Nick Wellkamp, the undergraduate student body president, in a letter sent to the Board of Regents. The letter was also signed by Aaron Fowler, the graduate student body president, and Connor McCarthy, the UGA student body president.

After a short five-minute discussion to begin the meeting, the Regents voted unanimously to adopt the new policies. The regents then retreated into an executive meeting, while Usha Ramachandran, the vice chancellor for Fiscal Affairs, and Daniel fielded questions from the gathering of students and reporters.

Although members from both student governments expressed their disagreement with the inclusion of a mandatory student fee, they emphasized that their opposition came from the hastiness and subsequent lack of transparency in the decision making process.

The primary complaint centered on the lack of any invitation for student input on the issue.

“In all of our conversations with the University System officials this past year, including a meeting with chief financial officer Usha Ramachandran, we were informed that the Board of Regents plan to [include a mandatory fee to] address the state budget cut would only occur under the 10 percent scenario. We were told any fee proposal would go into effect for the academic year 2009 to 2010, not spring 2009,” Wellkamp said in the letter to the Regents.

This unfulfilled expectation by the students had some questioning whether the Regents went against their own word.

Ramachandran and Daniel countered by indicating that suggestions made earlier in the year were proposals, not set rules.

They also pointed out that the Regents have implemented a multitude of cost cutting measures, only resorting to charging students when it became absolutely necessary.

Another concern for the students was the waiving of section 704.021 in the Board of Regents policy manual, which outlined the rules for mandatory student fees.

Several students, including Wellkamp, questioned the precedent being set with the waiving of 704.021. They said that this move may weaken the integrity of other policies if they could be waived so easily.

Daniel defended that action by stating that the policy was being waived for logistical reasons and that the policy remained intact.

“Most of the mandatory fees [are initiated] at the campus level and come up to the Chancellor and Board of Regents for action. This is a mandatory fee being initiated at the system level, and that’s why that policy was waived. The policy is not being ignored,” Daniel said.

This additional parts of the budget cut will affect university employees on health insurance. These workers will also take on some $8 million of the additional $46 million being cut, as employer contributions for HMO plans will be cut back from 75 percent to 70 percent. The final $16 million will be made up deferring planned maintenance and cutting out several budget line items.