Regents to focus on restoring cuts; KU dental school not top priority

Kansas Board of Regents

? The Kansas Board of Regents said Thursday that restoring budget cuts that Gov. Sam Brownback ordered in 2015 would be their No. 1 priority when Kansas lawmakers return in January, thus putting a new dental school at the University of Kansas Medical Center on a wish list for future years.

Thursday’s vote came one day after the board voted, 7-3, to spend $2.5 million to draw up architectural plans for converting Dykes Library on the medical school campus into a dental school, with supporters of that action saying it would send a message to the Legislature that the Regents were serious about making a dental school a priority.

The document that the Regents approved Thursday will be forwarded to the governor, who will then incorporate all or parts of it into the budget request he delivers to the Legislature in January.

During the 2017 session, lawmakers adopted a two-year budget, but they will consider adjustments to that budget during the 2018 session.

When the discussion began, Regents staff had prepared a document that had three top-priority items: fully restoring the 2015 allotment cuts, estimated to cost $24 million; restoring full funding of the career and technical education initiative, costing $4 million; and adding about $500,000 for Emporia State University’s nursing school, which lost funding it had been receiving from a local hospital before passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

Other items, including the KU dental school, were in a list of “other key proposals,” meaning the Regents and each of the institutions supported them but would not be actively advocating.

The list had grown out of a discussion the Regents held during their annual retreat in August, but Regent Bill Feuerborn said he thought the top-tier list with the three items was too long.

“I thought the general discussion was that we were just going to lobby or advocate to restore the allotment,” Feuerborn, a former Democratic lawmaker from Garnett, said.

Feuerborn noted that the Regents have, at times, struggled to have a unified message in the Legislature, with individual institutions sometimes competing with one another for scarce state funding.

“I very much support the school of nursing at Emporia State, but I don’t want us to get back the way it was several years ago when each university would go in and lobby, and then the Legislature would cut each one in half, or pick one or two,” he said.

But Regent Zoe Newton said the case of ESU’s nursing school was unique.

According to ESU President Allison Garrett, the nursing school had operated for more than 30 years without state funding because Newman Regional Health in Emporia funded it with federal money that it passed through to the university. After passage of the ACA, she said, Newman has been unable to do that, and the university has had to look for other funding.

Newton pointed out that the state of Kansas has kicked in the extra funding, but she wanted it to be included as part of the school’s “base” funding, not an enhancement that it would have to fight for year after year.

Other board members, however, said they wanted to keep the list as short as possible, without special requests for individual institutions.

“Any time we’ve talked to anybody across the system — community colleges, technical colleges, universities, the students, the faculty — everybody agrees: Restore the cuts. And we’re all singing from the same page on that,” Regent Shane Bangerter said. “And so if we can come up with ‘the’ number that represents ‘the’ restored cuts, that ought to be our No. 1 priority that every one of us across the system is talking to legislators about, talking to leadership about and getting that message out.”

In the end, the Regents settled on a three-tier budget request, with the top priority being restoration of the 2015 allotment cuts; then “other key proposals,” including the technical education funding and ESU’s nursing school; and, lastly, items for future consideration, including an estimated $32 million for the dental school construction project.

Putting the dental school in that third category was significant because it means KU cannot advocate for it in the 2018 session, unless one or more individual legislators themselves gets behind it. And even then, KU cannot advocate for it at the expense of anything else in the higher education budget.

Following Tuesday’s vote to spend $2.5 million on an architectural study, KU Chancellor Douglas Girod, a former vice chancellor of the medical school, said he fully supports the proposal.