Schools to freeze spending

The $22 million midyear budget slashing Gov. Bobby Jindal recently handed down to Louisiana’s public colleges and universities hasn’t, so far, prompted mass layoffs, scholarship eliminations and shortened faculty hours as in years past.

However, school leaders say they will have to freeze spending on classroom equipment, forgo major repairs and leave a number of positions unfilled to stay out of the red.

Last month, Jindal had to erase a total $166 million shortfall in the state’s current $25 billion budget to make up for the weaker than anticipated sales and personal income tax collections.

The reductions mark the fifth year of budget cuts in the middle of the fiscal year — a trend that started at the end of the governor’s first year in office.

Most of the midyear cuts from the current budget were aimed at the state Department of Health and Hospitals and the state Department of Children and Family Services.

Critics contend the reductions will most affect doctors, hospitals, mentally ill patients, pregnant women and dying patients.

Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin has said the governor took special care this year to “protect” higher education in light of the larger budget cuts colleges and universities have weathered in the past.

This year’s $22 million midyear cut is the smallest since the trend began. Between 2009 and 2012, Louisiana’s higher education institutions absorbed $55 million, $76 million, $35 million and $50 million in annual midyear budget reductions. In total, Jindal and the Legislature have cut $448 million from colleges and universities since 2008.

Those budget reductions likely would have been larger if not for $287 million in stimulus funds Louisiana received from the federal government in 2009 and 2010.

For the current year, institutions have reduced salaries and benefits by $13.3 million; cut travel spending by $300,000; slashed spending on supplies by $2.6 million; and deferred $284,000 in major repairs, according to the state Board of Regents, the state’s higher education policy board.

The $3.4 million midyear reductions to LSU’s Baton Rouge campus were the highest in the state. However, tuition and fees collected from a larger than expected incoming freshman class and an increase in overall enrollment should be enough to make up the difference, according to a document prepared by LSU system Chief Financial Officer Wendy Simoneaux.

Had there been no midyear cut, Simoneaux said, LSU would have spent extra funds by reducing class sizes and providing additional counseling and tutoring hours.

LSU’s law school wasn’t as lucky. Chancellor Jack Weiss said his campus’ $143,000 midyear reduction will have to be addressed by either delaying administrative hires or leaving positions unfilled.

“This is not catastrophic, but we would very much like to have a director of academic success and bar preparation and another career counselor, so it’s disappointing,” Weiss said.

He described Louisiana’s current higher education funding model as “death by a thousand cuts,” noting that budget reductions have hurt the law school disproportionately as one of few institutions in the state that has not raised tuition recently.

While Southern University Chancellor James Llorens described the $632,000 cut to the Baton Rouge campus as painful, the school should be able to avoid layoffs, he said.

“We anticipated a midyear cut, so we built it into our budget. That left us able to sustain without taking any personnel actions,” he said. “But it hurts. If we had not gotten this cut we would have been able to fill some of our needs, bought some lab equipment and possibly bring on some additional adjunct faculty.”

University of New Orleans President Peter J. Fos said his school will cut spending on travel, operating services and equipment along with maintaining the current freeze on out-of-state travel and leaving positions unfilled.

“Our chief concern is preserving the academic core of our university and trying to safeguard the student experience,” he said.