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Eye On Boise

Views of funding equity vary by campus…

Boise State University President Bob Kustra testifies to a joint legislative committee on Wednesday about funding equity among Idaho universities (Betsy Russell)
Boise State University President Bob Kustra testifies to a joint legislative committee on Wednesday about funding equity among Idaho universities (Betsy Russell)

Representatives of Idaho universities were given an opportunity to respond to the new higher ed funding equity report, and while all praised the work that went into the report, each had a different perspective on the funding equity issue; click below for a full report on the issue from AP reporter John Miller.

J. Anthony Fernandez, president of Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, said, "Whatever system comes out of this work, we hope it would be fair and equitable for all students, regardless of what their choice of school is and what discipline they decide to pursue." He said, "We have some questions about some of the weights that are given ... and the formulas ... in the current enrollment workload adjustment. But that's not the issue here. The issue is ... fairness for our students." He added, "Nothing is going to be perfect, we realize that, but always keep in mind the students."

BSU President Bob Kustra said he's worked in other states where funding equity never was at issue, because appropriate formulas were in place. "I don't think we should lose sight of the fact that we have a formula," he said. It may not be perfect, he said, but "it works. And the Legislature chose in certain recent years not to fund it, putting in peril certain universities who were growing during these last few years."

Kustra noted that 71 percent of the new students to enroll in Idaho public universities since 2007 came to Boise State. "We're not here to ask for any more than I think what we rightfully deserve," he said. "The Legislature did not fund the formula."

ISU President Arthur Vailas said costs for providing health education programs like those at ISU have grown more than other types of inflation. And University of Idaho representative Marty Peterson noted that UI awards a greater percentage of its degrees in science, technology, mathematics and engineering than other state institutions, and that those programs are more costly to provide.

Mike Rush, executive director of the state Board of Education, said he agreed with Rep. Maxine Bell that it's "certainly the board's job to get this done." He said the board "didn't ignore" the issue, and did sign on to the 2005 agreement. "They may not have solved every problem, but they've made an effort," he said. "They've also made continuing efforts."

Audit seeks policy on funding for Idaho colleges
By JOHN MILLER, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The decades-old scuffle among Idaho's four-year universities over whether they're being fairly funded compared to each other will hardly be resolved by a review by the state's performance audit bureau.

Office of Performance Evaluations auditors wrote the Idaho State Board of Education must first establish equity standards before anybody can determine if one school is enjoying relatively royal treatment, while another gets the short end of the stick.

It's an old debate — one that's emerged numerous times in recent decades, and it's being driven, in part, because the funding gap between the University of Idaho, which now gets the most money per student, and Boise State University, which gets the least, widened nearly three-fold since 2006 as BSU's enrollment has jumped.

"Those students should be properly accounted for, and those students should be properly funded," sad Boise State President Bob Kustra, whose funding based on the state's existing formula has fallen nearly a third over the last decade. He spoke before a panel of lawmakers who met Wednesday, when the report was released.

The UI gets about $3,500 in state appropriations per full time student, according to the current funding scheme that's weighted based on program type and course level. Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston gets about $3,000, while Idaho State and BSU each receive less than $2,500.

Complicating this debate is that each school comes armed with arguments based on its own mission, laying out why it's entitled to a fair, and usually growing, share of a limited pool of cash.

For instance, Kustra insists more attention be paid to rising enrollments — as his school in Idaho's capital approaches 20,000 students. Idaho State University President Art Vailas underscores how the costs of health and engineering programs are rising faster than inflation for humanities programs. Not surprisingly, Vailas' Pocatello school has a health and engineering focus.

The UI argues funding is appropriately weighted toward expensive research and graduate programs, which is the Moscow school's bread and butter. Meanwhile, Anthony Fernandez, president of Lewis-Clark State College, suggests such an emphasis puts teaching-oriented schools like his at a disadvantage.

"The equity issue has been an issue forever, and will be an issue forever," predicted Marty Peterson, the UI's longtime lobbyist who is stepping down this year. "I suspect at any given moment in time if you come up with a solution, at the next moment in time there are going to be problems with someone."

Part of the problem has been the declining state support for higher education since the 2008 recession began, a total decrease of about $75 million that's been accompanied by a $49 million hike in student tuition and fees. That only partly makes up the difference — and puts more of the burden on students and their parents.

In a 2006 agreement, university presidents agreed to a deal with the Idaho Legislature to give $2.2 million to BSU and $1.7 million to ISU. That was just half the money that state education officials said was needed to make things fair, but the schools agreed to a political compromise and declared funding equity.

Since then, however, the funding gap between Idaho's schools has widened, at least in part because the Idaho Legislature hasn't kept up with separate payments meant to fairly fund enrollment growth. BSU has been hardest hit, because its enrollment has grown the most, so it's pushing for changes.

"The Legislature chose not to fund it, putting certain universities in peril who were growing significantly during these last few years," Kustra said. "You can't simply write some of those students off."

The Office of Performance Evaluations' 51-page study concluded the State Board of Education must develop a policy that sets "an explicit standard of equitable funding levels" that clearly explains why some programs warrant more money than others. In other words, once state education leaders aiming to increase the number of Idaho's college graduates by 2020 decide one university should get more funding for offering nuclear engineering but another will get less for its literature students, they should set it out in a policy.

Auditors offered this caveat: The state board should recognize any plan to re-establish funding equity must also reflect the reality that universities are vying with other state agencies also seeking more taxpayer support. They won't get everything they want.

"By considering the often competing priorities that the Legislature must balance, the board will better position itself to develop a plan that can make progress toward achieving equity — even years when there is no additional funding from the Legislature," according to the OPE report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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