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Loss slows college growth plan

After a shaky start, Saint Leo University still intends to vastly expand its student body and campus, but college officials have stepped back from their most ambitious goals.

The school was forced to develop a more conservative planning approach after it ran into money troubles in 1999-2000, the initial year of its expected growth spurt.

"No one wants to operate in a deficit and we did," school President Arthur Kirk said. "It was a concern. If it proved to be a trend, then it would be a real concern."

Kirk, who took over as president four years ago, detailed his outlook for the 112-year-old school last week to the St. Petersburg Times after the Times obtained Saint Leo's most recent tax forms. Those forms, filed earlier this year with the Internal Revenue Service, give an overview of the school's finances in 1999-2000 and show that it ran up a nearly $1-million deficit.

Also in 1999-2000, its assets shrank by more than $1.7-million _ a 9 percent decline.

That's the same year the university launched a plan to more than double its undergraduate student body, widely expand its online offerings and increase its national and international presence.

Quite simply, for 1999-2000 the school anticipated more students _ and the tuition they bring _ than it got.

"We are not going to anticipate the tuition revenue as aggressively," Kirk said. "That's really the lesson we learned."

The goal remains the same, he said. Last year 817 traditional undergraduate students attended the State Road 52 campus, with 455 students living in campus housing. The school wants to enroll 2,000 undergraduates on the St. Leo main campus, with at least half living in campus housing.

It's more likely, though, that college officials will meet that goal in 2008 or 2010. The school had previously trumpeted _ during a 1999 Saint Leo Town Commission meeting _ a best-case scenario of 2005.

"Too much can affect us from one year to the next," Kirk said; "2005 would probably be overly ambitious and unlikely."

The financial picture emerging from the fiscal year that ended two weeks ago looks good, Kirk said. He expects a record surplus.

Though it had run a deficit before, 1999-2000 marked Saint Leo's largest annual deficit since it underwent accounting changes in the early 1990s.

But Kirk said the university is financially sound for the future. The 1999-2000 fiscal year was an anomaly, he said. Along with slower than expected student growth, the university also spent money on several one-time expenses.

It bought the Abbey golf course, added a system that supplies chilled water to the campus, installed a back-up generator and built up its computer network, Kirk said.

"It was really a necessary blip," said Glen Greenfelder, the chairman of the school's board of trustees. "If you're going to go forward, you've got to spend money to make it attractive."

Saint Leo has 14 sites from Texas to Virginia and an online degree program. Most of its students do not take classes in Pasco County, and many are in the military. Founded in 1889, the school has undergone 11 name changesand served as a preparatory school at times.

Kirk assumed the presidency in January 1997. His mission is to grow in enrollment, building and fundraising.

With the addition of Internet classes, the number of total students has grown to 8,720 last year from 7,403 in 1997-1998, a school spokeswoman said. The number of undergraduate applicants also has grown by 7 percent over that same time.

Fundraising, not a strong suit of the university, has swelled as well, Kirk said.

The 2000-2001 fiscal year, which ended two weeks ago, marked the second consecutive year during which fundraising grew by 50 percent and the fourth consecutive record year, Kirk said.

It raised more than $2-million, Kirk said. Five years ago the school had never raised more than $1-million. Still, the school's endowment holds a meager $7-million to $8-million. For comparison, that's a little more than a third of the Pasco-Hernando Community College endowment.

Kirk said he wants to double the endowment by 2005. He intends next year to set a goal for an upcoming capital campaign. That fundraising will aid expansion and renovation needed to meet the growth goal of 2,000 undergraduates.

"Yes, we have the goal," Kirk said. "Can we predict how soon we will reach that goal? Not given the uncertainty you have in the world today."

_ Ryan Davis covers higher education and social services in Pasco. He can be reached at 800-333-7505 ext. 3452 or by e-mail at rdavissptimes.com.

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