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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

USF on budget, PECO: "Trying to avoid catastrophe"

 They didn't exactly sugar-coat it:

Continual state budget cuts and a draining of funding for new campus construction has left the University of South Florida trying to "minimize" disaster. That was the message from USF Chief Operating Officer John Long, at a USF Board of Trustees workgroup on finance Thursday morning.

"That's really where we are at now," Long said. "Trying to avoid catastrophe."

In the past few years, USF and other state universities have seen their state funding shrink by close to 50 percent -- $300 million cut from the universities this year alone. Meanwhile, a tax on utilities that pays for the Public Educational Capital Outlay fund, used to build new educational buildings on campus, has shriveled -- partly because people have stopped using land-line phones and have become more energy efficient. In the past, USF has set aside reserve funds to help pay for at least basic maintenance on its existing buildings, but this year legislators said they expected universities to use those reserves to cover state cuts.

USF President Judy Genshaft reminded trustees that the Florida Board of Governors has just set up a task force to look at potential new solutions for paying for campus facilities.

"That issue continues to grow," said board chairman John Ramil, of the reserves. "Now we're not getting it on both sides."

With little choice, the trustee group approved a continuing operating budget that's more than $40 million less than they had last year. They are also losing almost $30 million that's going away with the Lakeland campus formerly known as USF Polytechnic, which is embarking on the complicated task of breaking off into the state's 12th university. The budget still needs approval from the full USF Board of Trustees before it's submitted to the Board of Governors in August.

The full board must also still decide how much of a tuition hike to ask for from the state higher ed leaders. Once they know how much extra tuition they'll have to work with, they'll develop a more complete picture of how to deal with that budget cut.

(Under a program known as tuition differential, universities are allowed to seek hikes beyond whatever tuition increases the Legislature approves, so long as the total does not exceed 15 percent per year. This year, the Legislature did not raise tuition at all, leaving it up to the universities to seek that full amount, which is somewhat more restricted than state base hikes.)

It sounds like USF is ready to seek that full amount. 

As USF Provost Ralph Wilcox pointed out, that hike would amount to $17 million spread across the USF system. And because 30 percent of tuition differential must be used for need-based aid, that will help the students in ways beyond just enhancing classes, he said. 

"We're going to be making that argument to the Board of Governors, I'm sure," said Ramil. 

"We are," said Wilcox.

[Last modified: Thursday, May 24, 2012 2:46pm]

    

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