Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Hoping to prevent layoffs, SIUC chancellor looks to implement furloughs

Chancellor Rita Cheng will ask the SIU Board of Trustees Thursday to grant her the authority to force university employees to take six unpaid days off as state support and dropping enrollment continue to plague the campus.

Administrators here have said all along they would do anything within logical means to keep furloughs out of Carbondale. But after absorbing a seven percent budget cut at the start of fiscal year 2011 and mounting delayed payments from the state, they have come up with a new tactic they call "administrative unpaid absences."

None of the campus officials contacted by this reporter were able to explain the difference, if any, between the unpaid absences and furlough days.

"The impact is the same as a furlough day," Cheng told WSIU-FM morning anchor Jennifer Fuller earlier this week.

Cheng has said the unpaid days would be temporary pay reductions. The hope is these unpaid days off will thwart layoffs in a region that heavily relies on the university for employment and business.

The board is likely to approve Cheng's request.

At a university, furlough days mean canceling classes. The Chancellor's office has yet to give any idea of when these days off might be, but the general understanding is legal obligations prevent them from taking place during holidays already built into the school calendar.

SIU President Glenn Poshard was able to thwart pressure from Springfield to implement furlough days earlier this spring. Members of the Senate Appropriations II Committee, which oversees higher education institutions' budget requests, backed off when Poshard told them the university did not intend to raise tuition rates for incoming freshmen.

Implementing furloughs would have violated the university's employment contract with its three major faculty and staff unions. That contract, which expired June 30, said administrators could not enact furlough days even in times of financial distress.

Negotiations between the university and union leaders for a new agreement are still pending. Faculty members are pushing for pay increases and no furlough days. Negotiators for the university have said such an agreement could lead to mass layoffs.

Illinois still owes the SIU system $18 million from fiscal year 2010 and have yet to make a scheduled payment this year bringing the state's bill passed the $50 million mark. Officials have become increasingly frustrated with the media coverage of higher education's budget challenges as it focuses solely on the University of Illinois and as candidates for office campaign on promises of not increasing taxes. Administrators interpret those messages as warnings that even more cuts are on their way.

The SIU system this year received the lowest funding levels it has seen since fiscal year 1999. There were no increases during former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration, which was only the beginning of the university's troubles.

Adding to problems at the Carbondale campus is a continuing enrollment slump. Though most other Illinois universities saw a drop this semester, Carbondale's enrollment has been spiraling downward since 2005. Administrators blame the ongoing rough economy in southern Illinois and a drop in the number of high school seniors.

Poshard said earlier this year that 100 students bring in roughly $1.7 million to the university's operating. With enrollment now at 20,037, down from 20,350 this time last year, that means a budget cut of roughly $5.3 million from attendance losses alone. It's unclear if campus officials have included that amount in the $15 million budget deficit.

Cheng has been thrusted into the middle of the university's hardship since she became Carbondale's sixth chancellor in ten years. She replaced Enrollment Manager Victoria Valle with John Nicklow, associate dean of the College of Engineering within her first week and issued an order to all university departments to cut their budgets by four percent to offset the deficit shortly afterwards.

Like most of Illinois' public universities, SIU has yet to utilize new powers granted by the Legislature and Gov. Pat Quinn allowing them to borrow money. SIU led the charge in getting that measure approved. The Senate approved the measure as it was introduced by Alton Democrat William Haine, but Rep. John Bradley, D - Marion, added amendments to the bill when it came to the House. The university's lobbyist spoke against Bradley's amendments, which would require any borrowing to be approved by the Office of Management and Budget.

A recent report said if the university were to borrow money, it would be able to do so at a 1.3 percent interest rate. Though the university does not intend to resort to borrowing, Poshard says the option is there should payment delays persist.

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