- Associated Press - Sunday, March 1, 2015

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota college presidents marched one-by-one to the lectern last week and referred to the higher education budget approved by the state House of Representatives as perplexing, problematic and political. But lawmakers in both chambers said it’s a work in progress.

The presidents complained that the House version of the funding bill has less money than the governor’s proposal and changes a well-researched funding formula they believe was fair to all schools. They’re worried it will lead to cuts in staff and programs and prevent them from replacing or repairing dilapidated buildings.

North Dakota State College of Science President John Richman said the new format pits the 11 colleges and universities against each other.

“Under the current funding model we were unified,” Richman told the state Board of Higher Education. “I have to advocate for my institution. If that hurts another one, so be it.”

Opponents of the new formula said it hurts, among other things, schools with students who might need additional math and English classes and could eventually lead colleges to turn away people who are needed in the workforce. Proponents of the House bill said the changes will increase the incentive for students to graduate on time.

Sen. Tim Flakoll, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he has yet to delve into the House bill in detail but is curious to find out how the new formula would help student achievement.

“I think those issues will be vetted,” Flakoll told The Associated Press. “It will be an interesting discussion as we move forward.”

Both Flakoll and Rep. Mike Nathe, chairman of the House Education Committee, said the final product will likely look different.

“This is just the first step in a three-step process,” Nathe said. “There’s a lot of support for the formula within the House, but the Senate will get that budget and take a good hard look at it.”

The higher education board last week discussed but did not act on a position paper that asks the Legislature to make several changes in the House bill. That includes keeping legal and internal audit services, authority over locally funded capital projects and right to set tuition and fees with the board. It also identified eight building projects from $1 million to $46 million as critical needs.

Williston State College President Ray Nadonly said the budget as it stands would force the school to cut up to 10 percent of staff, eliminate two sports, downsize campus security and continue to operate with zero reserves.

“The college is truly perplexed at what additional evidence is required to demonstrate that the state’s fastest-growing college in the county’s highest-cost region is in need of the state’s support,” Nadolny said.

Nathe said the buildings were taken out of the bill after slumping oil prices resulted in a revised revenue forecast at the end of January. The Senate is waiting until after the next forecast later this month before taking up the higher education budget.

Flakoll told the board last week that a $1-per-barrel increase in the price of oil equates to about $107 million in added revenue for the state.

“Keep that in mind as we move forward because I think we have bottomed out on prices nationally,” he said.

In the meantime, Nathe said the angst from the presidents may be premature.

“I will tell the presidents that this is just the beginning of crafting a higher ed budget,” he said. “I guess I’m not too concerned about it right now.”

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