Kansas Board of Regents sculpt $300 million plan for boosting state aid to public higher education

Lawrence board member pleads for prioritized list respectful of political realities

By: - September 21, 2023 2:00 pm
Jon Rolph, chairman of the Kansas Board of Regents, led colleagues and higher education officials through a discussion Wednesday to reduce requests for $570 million in new state funding to a more palatable amount. The full board is expected to vote Thursday on a unified higher education budget proposal. (Screen capture from the Kansas Board of Regents livestream)

Jon Rolph, chairman of the Kansas Board of Regents, led colleagues and higher education officials through a discussion Wednesday to reduce requests for $570 million in new state funding to a more palatable amount. The full board is expected to vote Thursday on a unified higher education budget proposal. (Screen capture from the Kansas Board of Regents livestream)

TOPEKA — The Kansas Board of Regents deleted a quarter-billion dollars Thursday from the extraordinary budget increase sought by public state universities in an effort to prepare a politically credible higher education spending plan for consideration by Gov. Laura Kelly and the 2024 Legislature.

The heavy lift extracted more than $270 million from budget enhancements envisioned by six universities in the fiscal year starting in July 2024. The higher education system of universities, community colleges and technical colleges was left with a $301 million proposal, with nearly half the amount viewed as one-time allocations.

The amendment process included replacement of a $150 million proposal to supercharge faculty and staff recruiting and retention at research universities in Lawrence, Manhattan and Wichita with a miniaturized $10 million initiative that wouldn’t be part of this budget request but would be sought individually through the legislative process. An $18 million earmark for the regional universities in Hays, Pittsburg and Emporia was sliced in half rather than discarded.

The budget outline to be submitted to the governor’s office in October would raise university spending by $30 million for building improvement or demolition, $15 million for IT cybersecurity and $7 million for rising operational expenditures. There also would be $14 million for need-based student aid, $9.5 million for student academic success initiatives and $5 million for a rural Kansas education program.

Jon Rolph, chairman of the Board of Regents and a Wichita businessman, said the board’s how-sausage-was-made vetting process involved articulation of diverse aspirational proposals and subjected to refinement by the board before inserted into the legislative arena.

“The regents had a vigorous and productive discussion about funding priorities and developed an ask focused on the most impactful projects for Kansas families and businesses,” Rolph said. “We’ve got to hold ourselves accountable. Higher education is essential to the prosperity of Kansas and its communities.”

Board members intend to submit a special request in January for restoration of $41 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars stripped from $142 million dedicated to the proposed Wichita Biomedical Campus. It is to be operated by Wichita State University and the University of Kansas. The money for the facility was temporarily withdrawn after the 2023 Legislature redirected too many ARPA dollars to other projects.

Wint Winter, a member of the Board of Regents and a former state senator from Lawrence, said the unprioritized $570 million spending hike offered by the 32 public universities, community colleges and technical colleges for review by the board would be dead on arrival at the Capitol if forwarded without revision.

“I can tell you that many people in the Legislature would look at that and say, ‘What are they thinking?'” Winter said. “I’m concerned that we’re not doing our job by sending over a budget that is $570 million without any indication from us about which of these items are the most important.”

“Most, if not all of that request, would be dismissed. Our advocacy is muted if we send over a budget request that we know is nowhere close to being that which will be funded,” he said.

State lawmakers appropriated slightly more than $1 billion in the current year’s higher education budget. The Republican-led Legislature and the Democratic governor embraced a $220 million increase in spending for higher education. In the previous budget year, the increase in state aid was $162 million. Both were adopted during a period in which the state treasury was flush with surplus tax revenue.

Ken Hush, president of Emporia State University, pleaded with the Board of Regents not to discard the $18 million sought by Fort Hays State University, Pittsburg State University and ESU to deal with financial problems associated with stagnant or declining enrollment. PSU president Dan Shipp urged the board to submit a request for $9 million in the upcoming year and seek a second installment of $9 million in the subsequent year for the three universities.

“This is about stabilization,” said Hush, who faces a deep enrollment drop at ESU tied to controversial realignment of academic programs. “Enrollment is declining nationwide. We’ve all talked about it. This is truly about stabilization and the initiatives that we need.”

Hush did win endorsement by the Board of Regents for three budget requests valued at $17 million, with more than half that total tied to state assistance repaying loans for housing and other obligations that no longer could be repaid through fee assessments.

The Board of Regents endorsed funding for the state’s two-year colleges: $14.3 million for business and industry apprenticeships, $10.5 million for technical college operating grants, $6.5 million for IT cybersecurity, $5 million for state aid of technical education capital projects.

Ethan Erickson, vice president for administration and finance at Kansas State University, received approval from the board for $25 million to support new or renovated buildings that would be tied to an agriculture innovation center dedicated to beef, dairy and grain science research and instruction. This appropriation would be set up as a one-to-one match from the private sector. The land-grant university has identified $133 million for the agricultural development project budgeted at $208 million, he said.

Kansas State earned support from the Board of Regents for$5 million in state tax dollars to create a water research institute to tackle quality and quantity challenges. The institute would delve into water scarcity as well as food production and urban planning for benefit of the state, he said.

“We have to do this,” said Marshall Stewart, a senior vice president at KSU. “It’s a top priority for the state of Kansas.”

KU was granted approval for $75 million in state funding for construction of a new regional cancer research and clinical treatment facility on the medical center campus in Kansas City, Kansas. The funding would be matched by private foundations that have expressed interest in supporting the cancer center project, said KU chancellor Doug Girod.

“We believe we’ve got some champions in the Legislature to carry the water on this one,” Girod said.

The cancer center project could cost as much as $500 million, a Board of Regents document said. In June, KU announced a $100 million donation from the Sunderland Foundation and allocation of $43 million in federal funding for the state-of-the-art facility.

Wichita State convinced the Board of Regents to endorse a $5 million appeal for support of student retention and workforce development through creation of workplace learning opportunities with businesses that go beyond a traditional internship. WSU officials had sought $10 million for this item.

“I think we should be investing in things that we already know is working,” said WSU president Rick Muma.

Fort Hays State would gain access to $15 million for a nursing workforce development facility for benefit of western Kansas.

Meanwhile, Pittsburg State would receive $5 million in state support to improve science laboratories on campus. The proposal also would collaborate with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation on construction of a criminology center on the campus in southeast Kansas. The specific budget request by the KBI for the center hasn’t been made public. In 2015, KBI opened a $55 million forensic science laboratory and classroom facility at Washburn University in Topeka.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.