Haskell feels pinch of tight budget

Katrina, Iraq siphon school funds

Haskell Indian Nations University’s classroom budget has taken another hit, its maintenance department is headed for a $900,000 deficit, and school officials are hoping they can somehow find a way to avoid furloughing employees.

“We’re in some dire circumstances,” said Haskell budget director Michael Lewis.

Last week, federal officials notified Lewis that Haskell’s 2006 operational budget – $9.5 million – would be cut 1 percent.

“This is on top of the 1.5 percent cut we took to help pay for Hurricane Katrina and Iraq,” Lewis said. “That 2.5 percent comes to about $238,000.”

Most of the shortfall will be made up by relying more on adjunct faculty, offering fewer classes and increasing class sizes. Already, Haskell limits its enrollment to about 1,000 students.

Haskell employs almost 200 people.

“Basically, Haskell has lost a million dollars in buying power over the last five years,” Lewis said of decreasing federal dollars. “This is an extension of that trend.”

Last fall, Haskell officials were warned the university’s budget could be cut as much as 6.5 percent.

“That 6.5 percent turned into 2.5 percent, fortunately,” Lewis said.

Lorenzo Funmaker, an Oneida, Wis., freshman at Haskell Indian Nations University, foreground right, picks up his textbooks at the campus library. Funmaker visited the library Thursday, a day after classes started at Haskell. The university is feeling the effects of budget cuts from the federal government, and may have to furlough some employees to make ends meet.

The university’s $4.1 million maintenance budget was cut $600,000 late last year. Since then, Haskell’s natural gas bill went up an additional $240,000 that was not in the budget.

The maintenance budget also is short $60,000 needed for cost-of-living pay raises.

“Last year, cost-of-living was in the budget,” Lewis said. “This year it’s not.”

Meanwhile, Haskell has asked the U.S. Department of Interior for help offsetting the spike in natural gas prices. Federal officials are expected to review the request during a Feb. 9-10 visit.

“We are waiting with bated breath,” Lewis said.

If the request is denied, Lewis said Haskell would be forced to “furlough” many of its 45 maintenance workers.

“That means sending people home for the summer without pay,” he said. “We’re hoping against hope that we don’t have to do that.”

But even if the $240,000 is restored, some workers still may be furloughed.

“That would leave $400,000 (in deficit), which is a lot to make up,” Lewis said, noting that 68 percent of the department’s budget is spent on salaries and benefits.

It’s likely, he said, that many on-campus repairs and maintenance projects will be deferred and that services will be pared back.

Unwanted summer break

Despite the concerns, officials expect there will be some money for cost-of-living raises for university workers.

“The (Bush) administration wants 2 percent; Congress has recommended 3.26 percent,” Lewis explained. “It’ll be somewhere in between.”

Most of Haskell’s faculty members have been furloughed for the summer in recent years after it became clear the university couldn’t afford the $400,000 needed to offer summer classes.

“Furloughing is a big issue,” said Mary Cofran, president of the Haskell Faculty Senate. “It’s the same as taking a 25 percent cut.”

Faculty morale, she said, has suffered.

Though some instructors were able to find grant-funded work for the summer, most did not, Cofran said.

“It really hurt,” said Bill Welton, a science instructor at Haskell the past 16 years. “Keep in mind, these are people who were hired with the understanding they would be paid year-round – and Lawrence isn’t the cheapest place to live.”

Welton and Cofran said they did not blame the university’s troubles on its administration.

“The budget was slim before Katrina, before Iraq. It’s not going get any bigger anytime soon. We all know that,” Cofran said. “The issue, really, is one of priorities on the federal level.”

Future fundraising

Not all the news is bad.

Haskell recently received a five-year federal grant, part of which will be used to hire a full-time coordinator for the Haskell Endowment Assn.

The association will raise funds for Haskell from the private sector.

“We hope to have that person hired by March or April,” said Venida Chenault, vice president for academic affairs.

Haskell’s budget woes are not unique.

“All tribal colleges are underfunded and experiencing difficulty,” said Richard Williams, head of the American Indian College Fund.

“It’s sad,” he said. “Look at it this way: Congress put up $80 billion last year to rebuild Iraq. That’s more than what the federal government has spent, cumulatively, on American Indians since the beginning, since 1776.”

Haskell’s troubles are compounded by laws that prohibit federal employees from lobbying.

“No one speaks for Haskell on the national level,” said Gerald Gipp, executive director at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium in Alexandria, Va.

“Until someone outside the bureaucracy steps up, I don’t know that much will change,” Gipp said. “This has been going on at Haskell for decades.”

Gipp was Haskell president from 1981 to 1989.