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UMS rolls out plan for unified budget for 7-campus system

FORT KENT, Maine — The University of Maine System Board of Trustees approved Monday a plan that would ultimately give system leadership more oversight and control of spending at its seven campuses.

The system’s board of trustees unanimously approved a lengthy list of recommendations meant to lead the system toward a unified budget during a meeting at the University of Maine in Fort Kent.

“We can’t take our eyes off our fiscal health,” UMS Chancellor James Page said during Monday’s meeting. “That has been too hard-won to let slip.”

UMS and several of its campuses, most notably the University of Southern Maine, are recovering from years of financial struggles that led to a controversial series of staff cuts and program eliminations aimed at shoring up persistent budget deficits.

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“The current allocation model has been in place with very minimal change for nearly 50 years,” said Ryan Low, the system’s chief financial officer. “This limited the [financial] team’s ability to shift existing resources without causing significant disruption across the campuses.”

The unified budget is aimed at changing that, giving the system office more flexibility in allocating funds to campuses based on their missions and individual financial situations.

Under the proposal approved Monday, the system would phase out its traditional funding model, in which a certain percentage of funding was divided up among campuses. Instead, the system will pump a growing share of state allocations through an outcomes based funding model, a formula that determines how much each campus gets based on enrollment, success and programs that advance the Maine economy and workforce. By 2019, that would be replaced by a new funding model meant to fund each campus based on its individual missions and needs, the exact details of which are still being worked out.

In another recommendation, UMS would place each campus into a tuition “price group.” The flagship campus in Orono would be in its own group. The second tier, with slightly lower tuition rates, would include the University of Southern Maine and University of Maine at Farmington. The smaller schools in Augusta, Machias, Fort Kent and Presque Isle would make up the third price group with the lowest tuition.

Another shift could come in how the system handles financial aid. UMS would explore centralized distribution of financial aid, or increased collaboration among campuses, rather than having a department at each university handle the process. Currently, only the system’s smallest campus, in Machias, doesn’t have a financial aid office. That campus collaborates with the flagship in Orono to provide students with financial aid packages.

The unified budget is one branch of Page’s One University initiative aimed at streamlining the system and controlling costs to make each campus financially sustainable, including ones that currently operate in the red. Some aspects of One University, such as shifting and centralization of certain administrative functions, have already been completed. Other more significant changes are still in the works.

The full list of recommendations is available in the trustees’ meeting materials on the UMS website.

Faculty members have long expressed concerns about aspects of the new budget process and One University plan.

In a letter to the board, the Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine raised concerns that any new appropriations taken in by the system would go into a strategic initiative fund.

“State funds are best sent to the campuses where they can be used in support of the mission,” the group argued. “Any other initiatives should compete directly against campus spending on education, scholarship and service.”

Also during Monday’s meeting, the trustees agreed to send a biennial budget request to the Legislature and governor.

Back in March, UMS vowed to hold in-state tuition rates at its seven campuses flat for the sixth straight year in exchange for about $7.5 million in supplemental budget funding. Gov. Paul LePage, following a meeting earlier this year with UMS officials, offered to propose an injection of funds if the universities put off the tuition hike.

About $4.8 million was meant to offset what UMaine would have gained through a previously proposed tuition hike. The rest was earmarked for early college programs, a pre-law undergraduate program and an adult education scholarship.

Lawmakers will consider that proposal, along with other items included in the supplemental budget, when they reconvene in January.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

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