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Under pressure, Kansas Regents commit Gov. Laura Kelly’s extra $10.3M to deferred maintenance over employee raises

Rafael Garcia
Topeka Capital-Journal
Should the Kansas Legislature approve a $10.3 million discretionary fund for the Kansas Board of Regents, the board voted Wednesday to spend that money on debt service on much-needed maintenance and upgrades at state university buildings.

Faced with the prospect of having the decision made for them, the Kansas Board of Regents on Wednesday voted to commit to spending a proposed $10.3 million discretionary fund, if approved by the Kansas Legislature, on much-needed maintenance and upgrades for aging university facilities.

As part of her proposed budget for the 2022 fiscal year, Gov. Laura Kelly partially offset a $37.4 general fund reduction for state universities with a proposed $10.3 million allocation to the regents to distribute at their discretion. The $10.3 million allocation was calculated as the budget increase university funding would have seen, if university employees had otherwise been included in Kelly’s plan to give state employees a 2.5% salary increase.

In discussing Kelly’s proposed budgets, committees in both the House and Senate largely agreed with the proposed cuts, although members of the House higher education committee expressed a need to either have the regents signal their intentions with a $10.3 million discretionary fund or ultimately make a decision on that funding’s use for the regents during the Legislature’s omnibus discussions.

The regents in November had asked Kelly to restore state university funding to a pre-COVID-19 level of $643.6 million, but while he encouraged the rest of the board to lobby the Legislature for that level of funding, regent Jon Rolph, of Wichita, said the board should also focus on the $10.3 million discretionary funding, which has a much higher chance of clearing the Statehouse.

To that end, however, Rolph said the regents should make a plan on how the board would intend to spend the $10.3 million, rather than letting the Legislature make that decision for them.

He outlined a plan to spend it on deferred maintenance — or a backlog of past-due work to address building deficiencies and properly maintain facilities — at the state universities. Of the thousand-plus state university buildings owned and managed by the regents, approximately half are considered critical to their universities’ missions, and of that half, about 60% of those buildings are in fair, poor or deficient condition.

A 2020 facility study commissioned by the Regents indicates that bringing all mission-critical buildings to very good condition would cost the state $1.46 billion.

“It’s not a problem that any of us created,” Rolph said. “We all — including the people at the universities — inherited this, so we believe it’s time to tackle this in a meaningful way.”

Rolph cited the discretionary fund, low bond interest rates and the 2020 facility study as compelling reasons to start tackling the huge backlog of deferred maintenance.

Pittsburg State University president Steven Scott encouraged the regents to think beyond deferred maintenance, especially when higher education employees were skipped over for a 2.5% salary increase for all other state employees. He said faculty are well aware of the fact the $10.3 million figure is calculated as what universities would have received with a 2.5% increase.

“We’re going to have a little bit of a communications issue on campus, which that’s not unusual to turn around to our faculty and staff and ask them to ‘unhear’ that,” he said. “That’s how that was calculated, and while it didn’t necessarily mean it would come to campus that way, (Kelly) made it very clear it was to the discretion of the regents as to how that was distributed and what the money was to be used for.”

The regents voted 7-2 in favor of the motion to commit the $10.3 million to debt service on deferred maintenance over the next 20 years, with regent Shane Bangerter, of Dodge City, and chair Bill Feurborn, of Garnett, opposing.

“My concern, however, is that it comes at a really bad time,” Bangerter said. “I think our universities are going to need more flexibility, rather than less.”

Regent Mark Hutton, of Andover, supported the motion, but he said the $10.3 million commitment to deferred maintenance was only one piece of necessary action on the issue, and the regents need to start making policy changes to solve the huge problem of $1.5 billion maintenance backlog.

In a supplementary motion introduced by Hutton, the board formally asked regents and university staff to develop frameworks on how to finance future spending on deferred maintenance, crafting a maintenance assessment to determine each university’s funding needs, creating a classroom efficiency policy to best utilize building space, and explore razing deteriorated or defunct buildings, among other considerations.

However, regents president and CEO Blake Flanders said it will take some time for staff to put together those recommendations and present to the board.

In other business

The board heard updates from the university presidents on the spring semester and beyond. While enrollment counts for the spring semester aren't yet finalized, enrollment changes are either on par with or show improvement from drops in the fall semester.

With adapted approaches to recruitment and admissions via such practices as virtual tours, applications are strong for the fall 2020 freshman class, the presidents said, although it will remain to be seen how much of that interest turns into actual enrollment.

The regents also approved strategic program alignment recommendations from Fort Hays State University and the University of Kansas. Under strategic program alignment, the regents have been reviewing low-enrollment degree programs at each of the state universities, asking university academic officers for recommendations on continuing, merging or discontinuing low-enrollment or redundant programs.

Fort Hays provost Jill Arensdorf presented on her university’s 12 low-enrollment programs, six of which were either new, already in phase-out status or already under review. The remaining six programs — art teacher education, foreign languages and literatures, philosophy, general physics, general art studies and general music — were recommended to continue because they support other programs or general education.

KU provost Barbara Bichelmeyer presented on 15 such programs, two of which — humanities and visual art education — were recommended for discontinuance.

Visual art education was recommended for discontinuance because of low enrollment, lack of faculty, and existing similar programs at other regents institutions. For humanities, which is an entire department, enrollment has been low and on the decline, although KU officials pointed to the subject’s value and the possibility to move courses into other departments. Bichelmeyer said that by discontinuing the programs KU would save about $500,000 in annual costs.