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RALEIGH – North Carolina’s higher education institutes, including those in the western part of the state, have had few major surprises during this year’s budget negotiations.
Both legislative chambers opted largely to keep funding at existing levels while also covering enrollment growth, an important funding piece that allows campuses to hire enough staff and faculty to accommodate growing student classes.
The Republican-led House and Senate are in the midst of settling their differences in the $22.9 billion budget, with conference appointees meeting behind closed doors to determine what makes it to a final version.
A compromise version of the two-year budget could emerge this week or next, and would then go on to the floors of the House and Senate for adoption.
The House and Senate budget proposals aren’t without any headaches for the UNC system, with “management flexibility” cuts to be distributed across the UNC system found in both the House and Senate budget proposals.
The House budget calls for $20 million in reductions next year, while the Senate proposal seeks to cut $21 million over two years.
Gabriel Lugo, a University of North Carolina-Wilmington professor who is the chair of the UNC system’s Faculty Assembly, said campuses will have a hard time finding places to make reductions. Campuses had to contend with much larger management flexibility cuts in years past, which have led to more crowded classrooms and a greater dependence on adjunct faculty as retiring or departing tenured faculty are slow to be replaced, he said.
“There’s nothing else to cut,” Lugo said.
The final budget is still being worked on, but here are some highlights from what each chamber has proposed:
- Pay raises. House budget writers called for a $1,000 raise for all state employees, which would include university and community college staff, while the Senate proposed a $750 or 1.5 percent salary raise, whichever is greater.
- Boosting medicine in the west. Senate budget writers proposed a $3 million increase for the UNC School of Medicine’s Asheville campus, which sends medical students interested in rural medicine to study and train in the Asheville area.
- Return of the NC Teaching Fellows. Both the House and Senate are looking to reinstate the N.C. Teaching Fellows program, a competitive program that covered the tuition of students who agreed to teach in the state’s public schools. The likely program reinstatement comes as education schools on campuses across the state have seen a steep decline in enrollment, which has led to a teacher shortage in some areas of the state.
- UNC-Chapel Hill law school funding cuts. The Senate proposed cutting the law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill by 30 percent, a reduction that school officials have said would be crippling. The House did not seek any similar reductions.
- Deferring admission. The House proposed using $2 million in 2018-19 for scholarships to high-achieving high school students who defer admission in the state’s 4-year-colleges in favor of first attending a community college.
- Seniors can sit in. Both chambers want to make it easier for senior citizens to observe classes at universities and community colleges, with language that would waive fees for those 65 and older looking to audit classes.
While this year’s funding requests are being decided by the N.C. General Assembly, campuses are continuing to push forward with other projects.
Last year’s $2 billion infrastructure bond sent millions to campuses to begin renovating existing building or building new ones, an infusion of cash that he UNC system hadn’t seen in years.
The bond included major projects at western campuses, including a $70 million health sciences facility at Appalachian State University, a $110 million natural science building at Western Carolina University and $21 million worth of renovations of an academic building at University of North Carolina-Asheville.
Given the enormity of the bond proposal, faculty at Appalachian State University weren’t expecting this year’s state budget to fund any new large projects, said Paul Gates Jr., a communications professor who represents ASU’s faculty as this year’s head of the Faculty Senate.
Enrollment in nursing and other health sciences majors at Appalachian have doubled since 2008, and the new building will allow the university to as an important talent source to support the area’s health industry, he said.
“That took care of a pressing need due to enrollment and the needs of a new program,” Gates said.
A separate capital projects bill making its way through the legislature also would allow Western Carolina University to borrow money to build a $23 million parking deck, to be paid for with an increase in parking rates, according to legislative documents.
Western Carolina University will also welcome its first class in the fall of 2018 under a $500 annual in-state tuition plan, a major change pushed by the legislature last year to boost enrollment and lower debt levels of students at three campuses. Also, included in the lowered tuition initiative were UNC-Pembroke and Elizabeth City State University.