University of Montana budget isn’t straightforward

alley pic

This sunrise is from yesterday when I was walking the dog through alleys in our Northside neighborhood.

Spring is here and you can feel it. It’s lovely. This morning, we passed a couple neighbors smoking cigarettes, one on her stoop, one on the sidewalk, and you can sense people easing into the season.

In July, the seeds that we plant now will be growing like crazy, and I’m thinking about that despite my dislike for gardening. But I’m also thinking about July because that’s when I hope we’ll have better financial numbers, or more clear information, from the University of Montana about where it’s spending – and not spending – this tight fiscal year, 2017. It ends June 30, 2017.

As UM has cut its budget, professors and others have decried cuts to certain programs, and I had hoped to get a crystal clear picture of where the money has really gone over the past few years and more. Unfortunately, it’s hard to do, and there are reasons for it that I’m not going to get into much right now.

I appreciate UM offering this data, though: Expenditures by Program for Red Tape. At the very least, it shows that since the 2008 fiscal year, a couple colleges have grown like mad. Dean Roberta Evans heads the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education and Human Sciences, and she didn’t return my requests for comment in time for the story, but I receive an email from her today about the significant growth in her area. But she’s had to cut as well, and Evans said this in the email:

Doing more with less is incredibly difficult; I can’t begin to tell you how inspiring it is to see brilliance, creativity and enduring commitment in outstanding colleagues who devote their careers to fulfilling students’ academic dreams, despite the sacrifices involved.

Evans also noted other reasons for the increased costs, including health insurance nearly doubling, from $590 per employee per month in 2008 to $1,054 this year. Ouch.

Although UM has seen enrollment decline some 24 percent since 2010, the College of Education has grown at least from fall 2015 to fall 2016, according to Evans. She noted a 5.7 percent increase across all programs in the college, and several “into double-digit percentages.”

UM President Sheila Stearns said in the short term, the dollars have followed enrollment, and the campus is undergoing some strategic planning to be directed about how it allocates resources in the future.

College of Humanities and Sciences Dean Chris Comer put it like this:

When all is said and done, we don’t make our decisions on how to spend based on something as simple-minded as the student count.

OK, maybe I can talk about how we ended up with the data we have after all. The first thing I wanted to do was look at the faculty FTEs, or full time equivalents, in the budget book. But I didn’t have all of the years, and when I talked to a finance person in Main Hall, I learned the more precise analysis would come from actual expenditures by program. Makes sense. That’s because the budget book only represented a snapshot in time of expected expenses, according to UM. So I requested the actual expenditures, thinking and hoping it would be an easy request to fulfill, a query in a data set. Well, it wasn’t, but UM provided it nonetheless.

Another complication is that one of the big cuts took place from FY2016 to FY2017, and of course, we don’t know all that programs have spent yet in 2017 because it’s not over. I thought I had projected expenditures for 2017, but UM said the numbers are not projected, but incomplete, and projects were not available. So you see the reason we may have more insight in the budget come July 2017.

Another difficulty is I had wanted to see only general fund allocations, but apparently, some grant money is included as well in the data I received. I’m also hoping that in July, we can get data that’s general fund only, and then, fingers crossed, see a more true picture in the numbers of how the money has been doled out.

I hope the finances at UM become easier to understand for the layperson like me. To be honest, even the deans might want more transparency. The Montana Kaimin had this story about deans being surprised to see their discretionary funds evaporate.

Last week, Washington Post reporter Dave Fahrenthold spoke on campus about covering Trump, and he advised reporters to “show your work” and be transparent about sources to ensure credibility, and I’m going to heed his advice. You have the Excel spreadsheet with this post, and you have the “exported” data with the story since for whatever reason, our content management system won’t take Excel.

Anyway, the advice from him might be something that applies to UM as well. Because of its enrollment drop, again and again and again, and budget cuts, and the turmoil around the reductions, people are paying close attention to the university. And it’d probably be awesome for the U if they could get a clear picture of how the budget gets put together.

So. Whew. All for now. More in July. Thanks for reading. Oh, and this today, don’t miss the story about the hearing on the mail-in election at the Montana Legislature.

  • Keila Szpaller