While Ohio lawmakers wrangle over the state budget, Kent State University officials are bracing for a big cut in state support for Ohio's second-largest university.
Kent State University President Lester Lefton told the university's trustees on Wednesday administrators have been preparing since 2009 for a "deep" cut in state dollars for higher education.
Lefton said they're hearing the state budget, once finalized, could cut 13 percent out of the state dollars given to Kent State, or as much as $13 million. He emphasized the fact they won't know how big the cut will be until the state budget is passed — a move expected this month.
"We have had funding cuts every year that I have been here," Lefton said. "But we’ve always thought of a deep budget cut as $2 million. This time we’re talking $10 million to $13 million. We don’t know actually what it’s going to be."
Ohio Gov. John Kasich's budget, when first proposed in March, called for a 10.5 percent overall drop in higher education spending throughout the state. Kasich's budget also recommends a cap on tuition increases for public universities of 3.5 percent per semester.
When asked about possible tuition and fee increases for the coming school year, Lefton refused to speculate.
"There’s conversation in the (Ohio) Senate that varies very differently than Gov. Kasich’s recommendation, which was endorsed by the (Ohio) House," Lefton said. "The reality is, we’re waiting on the Ohio legislature to determine what our budget will be, let alone if there are caps on tuition."
Lefton said no Ohio university has set tuition or fees for the coming year because they are all waiting to see what happens in Columbus with the state budget.
Jacqueline Woods, chair of the Kent State trustee board, said the trustees' goal is to hold a meeting in late June or early July — once the state budget is finalized — and determine whether students will see any tuition or fee hikes in the fall.
"We want people to know what they’re going to be facing coming back," Woods said.
The board voted Wednesday to approve a continuing budget for the university until the state budget is passed.
2 years of preparing
Since 2009, administration started several efforts to cut spending and increase efficiency at Kent State.
The university streamlined its admissions, financial aid and billing departments, started an early retirement program, initiated a hiring freeze for "non-mission critical" positions, and officials are planning internal budget cuts at the different colleges and schools.
Deans of the different colleges have created their own savings in recent years, as the university has done, to try and counter anticipated state cuts.
In addition, course sections have been reduced, employees' overall contribution rate to group medical premiums rose by 2 percent for 2011 to 13.74 percent, and an independent internal audit created almost $900,000 in savings.
In one specific example, Lefton pointed to an increase in responsibility among Kent State's maintenance workers.
As janitors and maintenance crew members retire, the university has not replaced them. As a result, about 30 fewer staff members are taking care of the 7.5 million square feet of phsyical plant space across all eight campuses. A single custodian is now responsible for about 42,000 square feet of space at Kent State compared with the industry average of about 31,000 square feet.
"I’m really not proud of it, that we are pushing our staff to take care of an extra 10,000 square feet over the national average," Lefton said. "But it’s what we have to do to take care of the budget cut.”
But it's not just janitors whose workload has increased.
Since 2006, enrollment has risen dramatically across all eight campuses by a total of 7,735 students — an increase of 23 percent in five years. Yet faculty numbers have remained flat in that same time period.
In 2010, Kent's growth in full-time equivalent students rose 10.2 percent. Ohio's other public universities averaged a 3.4 percent increase in full-time students in 2010. Last year, Kent State became Ohio's second-largest public university — behind only Ohio State University.
Lefton said he recognizes skyrocketing enrollment and flat staffing levels are not sustainable in the long run.
"You just can’t keep growing and not increasing your staff," he said. "But we are going to continue exhibiting financial constraint, being very conservative in our hiring policies until we know the budget has stabilized. I would like the economy in Ohio to improve, and as the economy in Ohio improves I would feel more comfortable that we have a stable budget situation going into the future."
Lefton said they are hiring people, but it's not a simple matter of replacing someone who retires.
"We are hiring people, but we are hiring people at mission-critical positions," he said. "And we will continue to do that for the foreseeable future. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do. This has created pools of money that we’re not spending in anticipation of the budget cuts."
Lefton gets contract bonus
Despite all the talk about cuts Wednesday, trustees approved giving Lefton an annual performance bonus as dictated in his contract.
The bonus is 25 percent of his base salary of $401,576 and amounts to $100,394.
Woods pointed to the increases in enrollment and $39.8 million in fundraising last year as some of the reasons why the board felt Lefton should get his contractual bonus.
"We did a thorough process of reviewing his performance," she said. "We felt that everything he has done and his staff has done clearly justified going forward with the contractual agreements that we have."