College leaders warn against aid cuts

Posted Oct. 27, 2009, at 9:26 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Leaders of Maine’s public higher education institutions are warning that the proposed cuts in state aid as the result of lower state revenues will result in layoffs and fewer students over the next two years.

“This would have a devastating effect,” said University of Maine System Chancellor Richard Pattenaude. “It would have a particularly devastating impact on the three smallest campuses, which have very thin margins.”

The target for spending cuts set by Gov. John Baldacci is about $15 million over the two-year budget cycle for the university system, $4.2 million for the community colleges and just more than $660,000 for Maine Maritime Academy. The total budget target for all state spending cuts is $200 million over the two years.

The Legislature’s Education Committee invited Pattenaude, community college system President John Fitzsimmons and MMA President Len Tyler to assess the impact of the cuts. Lawmakers were told there will be layoffs and fewer students if they have to make the spending reduction levels set by the governor.

“We are just finishing the final cuts we will be submitting,” Fitzsimmons said. “In the first year, there is not much we can do but to absorb that cut. We already have contracts in place and commitments to students.”

He said reserves will be tapped, travel will be stopped and other spending eliminated as part of meeting the current budget year target. In the second year, he said, the system would lose between 300 and 500 students and 25 to 35 faculty, staff and administrators.

Pattenaude said the university system would have to take similar steps, including delaying purchase of equipment and reducing services such as advising for students. He said the dollar impacts are larger for UMS because the institution is larger.

“We will have to eliminate 100 FTEs,” he said, “That’s full-time equivalents including benefits. If we eliminate a significant number of faculty in the FTE [count] we will have to eliminate over a hundred classes.”

Pattenaude said the reduction in state aid would mean more than 2,000 fewer students attending the seven-campus system. All of the institutions also will face a loss of tuition revenue as a result of fewer students.

“That’s not an insignificant amount,” Fitzsimmons said. “That’s about $2 million for us.”

Richard Ericson, vice president of administration and finance at MMA, told lawmakers the institution is curtailing spending for travel and purchases, and freezing hiring. He said the school eliminated a dozen administrative and support positions last year and has not determined whether further job elimination will be needed.

“We have been adding enrollment, but that is a trend we cannot continue to rely upon for more revenue,” he said.

Ericson said where to make cuts to make up for the loss in state aid will be discussed at a board of trustees meeting next month.

Pattenaude said the three smallest campuses of the university system — the University of Maine at Fort Kent, the University of Maine at Presque Isle and the University of Maine at Machias — are facing the most difficulties in making cuts.

“We already expect that two of them, without stimulus funds, will finish [the budget year] slightly in the red,” he said. “There are some long tails to swift change.”

Pattenaude said academic and professional employees usually require a year’s notice before a position is terminated, and when benefits are added to the cost of salaries, the cost swiftly mounts. He said budgets are already tight before making further cuts to make up for decreased state aid.

Fitzsimmons reminded lawmakers that further cuts in higher education would affect the state’s ability to compete in the new economy that requires more skilled and educated workers. He said all of the calls for more investment in higher education have a basis in reality.

“We need to be talking about the dream of where we want to go,” he said. “This is the time for us to bring more people in, in a down economy, because when they come out they are rocking and rolling in a new economy.”

Pattenaude said Fitzsimmons is right and that in all of the discussion of budget cuts, policymakers should not lose sight of the needs of a new generation and a new economy.

“We have to remember what we are doing this for,” he said. “For a new economy and a new Maine.”

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