At $1.5 million a year, KU’s jet is a bargain, officials tell state legislators

? Kansas University officials told state legislators Monday that the university’s ownership and use of jets gives taxpayers and students a strong return on the investment.

The jet expenditures of $1.5 million a year are more than offset by revenue the planes help bring in from donor relations and athletics, said Tim Caboni, vice chancellor for public affairs.

“It is a powerful asset,” Caboni said.

KU officials were in Topeka Monday to answer questions from members of the House Standing Committee on Education Budget about the use of KU’s jets.

Rep. Amanda Grosserode, a Lenexa Republican and chairwoman of the committee, said members had questions after stories about KU’s use of the plane were published in the Lawrence Journal-World earlier this month.

The university has owned planes for several decades, but in more recent years the endowment association, KU’s official fundraising organization, has given KU the funds to buy jets.

Last fall, KU received an $8 million gift from the association to buy a Cessna Citation CJ4. Two years ago, the university spent a gift of $290,000 to buy a 25-percent share in a Phenom 100. Taxpayers and students pay for the fuel, operations and maintenance of the jets.

The Journal-World requested and received flight data for five years that showed that about two-thirds of the $3.5 million spent over that period of time were for Kansas coaches and athletic administrators. The rest were for top university officials. Over the same period, KU flew doctors and medical staff 643 times to rural cities so doctors could treat patients.

Several questions from representatives Monday were about why the athletic department, whose revenue last year was more than $97 million, could not pay for its own flights. The flights on KU jets do not include flying student athletes to games.

Theresa K. Gordzica, KU chief financial officer, explained that FAA rules require all payments for flights to come from one pool of money. The university decided that funding should come from tax dollars.

For the athletic department to spend revenue generated by sports on flights, the university would have to obtain a charter company license.

Rep. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican, asked why KU’s athletics department could not pay just purchase its own fractional ownership of a plane with its own revenue and not use the university plane.

“Can their (athletic) corporation subcontract for part (ownership) of an airplane?” Bollier asked.

Gordzica said that, in addition to the federal regulations, university officials think aviation travel should be organized under one office.

“It’s more efficient the way the ownership is structured now, and it is managed as all one operation,” Gordzica said. “We have all the assets in one office.”

Jeff Long, KU’s aviation director, told the committee that safety is an important component, and the university feels comfortable using Executive AirShare, which sold KU the fractional jet, and also services that plane.

“In my role I’m worried about safety,” Long said. “I believe and experts in the industry believe the safest way to run an operation is to be familiar with all parts of it.

“Going out to other charter services like KU Athletics occasionally has to do to meet their needs because we’re already busy … is one of those situations where I don’t know exactly how good that program is. Somebody else has called that program safe but the best way to do it is have someone who is familiar with how they run their operation from a safety operational standpoint.”

Sheahon Zenger, KU athletic director, said the jets were an important tool for the athletics department and for head men’s basketball coach Bill Self.

“Self has said a number of times he couldn’t do it without this tool,” Zenger said. “Basketball is the bedrock of our athletic department.”