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Northern begins next year's budget process

With two months left in the school year, Montana State University-Northern is starting to look at its budget for the next year, and Chancellor James Limbaugh wants to hear what people think.

Two of the Chancellor's Forum events that Limbaugh scheduled to involve people in Northern decision-making, one at 4 p. m. Wednesday and one today at noon in Hensler Auditorium, were arranged to offer Northern's Business Director Sue Ost a chance to explain how Northern's budget works, where money comes from and where it goes.

Ost explained that Northern's funding comes from several sources: state appropriations from the legislature, tuition and student fees, and a number of designated or self-sufficient funds like food services and athletic ticket sales.

The state appropriations are budgetted for the entire Montana University System by the Board of Regents which splits the funds between the flagship campuses in Missoula and Bozeman. Those universities and their presidents then divide those funds between their various schools.

Northern is provided $9,259,344 a year, for fiscal years 2012 and 2013, from Montana State University in Bozeman.

That makes up 64 percent of Northern's total budget, which is the highest percentage of any school in the state. MSU and the University of Montana in Missoula both get 40 percent of their budgets from the state. MSU-Billings gets 50 percent. Montana Tech gets 53 percent. The University of Montana-Western, and the Centers of Technology in Great Falls and Helena get 58 percent of their budgets from state appropriations.

Tuition makes up the other 36 percent of Northern's budget.

This percentage is smaller than most other schools because Northern has seen enrollment drop, aside from the past few years. If there were more students, or students were taking more classes, there would be more tuition coming in and the proportions would line up more with other Montana schools.

Ost then broke down the operating budget of the university into eight sections: instruction, research, public service, academic support, student services, administration, physical plant, and scholarships or tuition waivers.

Instruction is the largest portion, 43.8 percent, but many believe that should be higher.

The faculty, whose salaries are included in that, would certainly like to be paid more. Their salaries are particularly low for their profession.

The Board of Regents agree with them. Ost and Limbaugh mentioned a board recommendation that instruction should make up 50 percent of the budget.

The second largest part of the operating budget is student services, like the registrar and advising services, at 14.8 percent, then the physical plant, which pays for the upkeep and use of the actual campus facilities, at 12.1 percent.

A large portion of Northern's funds also go toward paying debts to the Department of Environmental Quality, the Northern Foundation, bonds and MSU-Bozeman.

These loans were originally pursued to pay for projects like dorm renovations, phone system upgrades or wiring work.

Limbaugh said at the beginning of the forum that the talk was not meant for specific funding questions but rather to get an idea of how the whole system works before more in-depth budget talks begin.

"If you don't start the conversation with fundamentals and go straight into distribution of dollars it gets confusing, " Limbaugh said. "Without our talk about how the budget is constructed we can't have a meaningful discussion at the next level. "

That next level, some as yet undefined process of seeking public and staff opinion on budgeting, should happen later this spring, after next month's inauguration.


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