W.Va. colleges make cuts to deal with less taxpayer funding

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By Mackenzie Mays 
The Charleston Gazette

Colleges across West Virginia are firing employees, eliminating and merging positions and making other cutbacks to compensate for a reduction of more than $42 million in state funding for higher education over the past two years.

At West Virginia University, about 13 employees have been fired as part of a Reduction in Force for this budget year, and more than 100 positions have been left vacant, according to WVU spokesman John Bolt. Departmental restructuring also occurred at the school to compensate for the reduction in funding, Bolt said.

“WVU responded to the state budget reductions in several ways, always keeping in mind the need to protect the core academic mission . . . ,” Bolt said.

At Marshall University — where state funding cuts equal a reduction of about $900 per student — about 36 positions have been eliminated through attrition for the current budget year, resulting in savings of about $2 million, according to Marshall spokeswoman Ginny Painter.

Marshall did not lay off any employees, but an additional 17 positions were not filled. Also, some departments and colleges have been combined or restructured, Painter said.

“We continue to actively adjust our operations to accommodate the budget cuts,” Painter said.

West Virginia State University has fired 10 employees, eliminated 15 already vacant positions and is considering other cost-saving measures, including renting out campus property for outside events.

WVU-Tech and Shepherd University officials have chosen to not fill some positions in recent years, as well, and continue to consolidate responsibilities on campus.

“These are the things we’re doing to try to deal with these reductions in state budgets. All of us are facing this same issue,” said Valerie Owens, a spokeswoman for Shepherd. “We’re trying to be proactive and trying to preserve all of the things that we do here.”

For the past two fiscal years, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has cut state agency spending by 7.5 percent.

In fiscal 2014, colleges assumed a greater cut of nearly 9 percent to safeguard financial aid, according to Higher Education Policy Commission spokeswoman Jessica Tice. That cut resulted in a total reduction in higher education funding of more than $33 million.

For fiscal 2015, higher education institutions had to cut their budgets by about 3 percent, totaling to a loss of about $9.6 million for the state’s colleges.

West Virginia cut more in state funding for higher education than any other state besides Wyoming, according to a report released in May by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

After adjusting for inflation, West Virginia cut spending on higher education by about $330 per student, the report found.

Jim Nelson, a spokesman for Bluefield State College — where positions also have been frozen and merged — said that despite the hardships involved with the decrease in funding, crises like these force schools to re-examine the way they run things.

Since the budget cuts, Bluefield State has used grant money to install solar panels to light parking lots and has cut back on travel, with administrators often attending meetings via web cam.

“Formerly, we wouldn’t have even thought about hopping into a car and driving to another part of the state. But we had to get leaner,” Nelson said. “You have to say, ‘Why do we do it this way?’ I think we’re all fighting a similar challenge . . . . It’s made us take pretty hard looks at the way we usually do business. Colleges who survive and who thrive have to become more and more entrepreneurial and less isolated, ivy-covered institutions just because that’s the way they’ve always done it. You have to be more adaptive.”

Nelson said, if state legislators don’t make funding for higher education a priority soon, he worries that the consequences could be significant.

“For a long time, we’ve been asked to do more and more with less and less,” Nelson said. “At some point, that’s got to stop, because, if you continue to do that, you may be asking us to do everything with nothing.”