Activities funding facing major cuts

By Chelsea LoCascio and Elizabeth Zakaim
Editor-in-Chief and Reviews Editor

If you are a student employee at the College, then you might be disappointed when you check your bank account next semester and see your income take a hit.

For those who rely on the Loop Bus to get off campus, you may find the schedule less convenient than it used to be.

When you are thinking of requesting funding for your organization, you might have to spend your own money to fund an event.

The Student Finance Board, which is charged with allocating the Student Activity Fee fund to organizations’ events, is in the midst of some major changes.

The SAF budget started out with around $1.6 million in the beginning of this academic year.

During the Spring 2016 semester, the College’s Vice President for Student Affairs Amy Hecht proposed to remove up to 15 percent, or about $240,000, of the SAF budget every year to hire new staff during both this semester and the next fiscal year.

SFB discusses ways to save money. (Jason Proleika/Photo Editor)

Of that $240,000, $60,000 of the SAF is used for the club sports and intramural director and an estimated $100,000 will be used for the diversity inclusion representative when they are hired, according to Chris Blakeley, the Student Government representative for SFB and a sophomore civil engineering major.

The outlook of hiring the SFB business operations manager is not currently being looked at. If this position is not filled, it would save SFB about $80,000, according to Blakeley.

Robert Mitchals, the current executive director of SFB and a junior political science major, said that while Hecht did not violate SFB’s Constitution and this reallocation of SAF was ultimately within her rights as vice president for Student Affairs, her decisions have put SFB in significant financial trouble.

Though the loss will not cause an increase in the SAF students pay as part of their miscellaneous fees each semester, it will greatly impact how much money SFB can allocate to different club events on campus.

According to a letter Hecht addressed to SFB in 2016, both she and Mitchals agreed that no more than 15 percent of the SAF would be used annually to fund positions created to directly benefit students.

“I am grateful for the student leadership who stepped up and saw a need on this campus and agreed to fund it,” Hecht said. “The position that is already on campus has made a tremendous difference for our club sports and intramural program. I believe the director of Student Diversity and Inclusion will do the same.”

“Student Affairs wants to support students and provide the very best student experience that we can,” Hecht added. “With the support of Student Government and Student Finance Board, we will be able to accomplish even more.”

While Mitchals says that he does not regret signing off on the decision and is in full support of the positive impact these positions will have on campus life, he acknowledged that both SFB and SG are facing the financial consequences.

If he hadn’t signed off on the agreement made in September 2016, he would have jeopardized SFB’s status in the eyes of the vice president for Student Affairs, according to Mitchals.

While he isn’t opposed to the staff hired, he was not in full agreeance with where the money came from.

“We fought it tooth and nail,” Mitchals said. “We would have been viewed as someone who was obstructing the agenda of that office.”

SFB initially opposed the idea and worked with SG in order to spread awareness for the impending decision during open fora held in April 2016 before the decision was made, according to Mitchals.

“No one voiced an opinion,” Mitchals said. “It wasn’t real — they just saw a number on paper.”

Hecht, however, found both student organizations to be in agreeance with the decision.

“Some students expressed that they wished that there was another way to fund them,” Hecht said of the overall student consensus on hiring the new staff. “But after much discussion, they realized that this was the only way to have them in the near future.”

Although Blakeley was freshman class secretary at the time, he felt assured that SG did what they could to fight the changes.

“Yes, everyone could always fight more,” Blakeley said, “but at that moment, you’re in a split decision –– you don’t know what’s gonna happen, you don’t know how it’s going to work out.”

Through the fora, SG did what it could to reach out to the campus to make them aware of the issue, yet the consequences of reallocating the SAF has already started to surface.

In February, SFB had to dip into its own reserves for $60,000 in order to fund the remaining events for this semester. According to Mitchals, there is $190,000 left in reserves for any other emergency. When he joined the SFB executive board as a freshman, there was $1.2 million in reserves.

According to Mitchals, the SAF won’t likely ever see that kind of money again.

“Our reserves won’t replenish,” he said.

Different clubs on campus continually look to SFB for funding, and the organization has also had to open its pockets for other expenses over the years. SFB funded more than $100,000 toward the Brower Student Center renovation.

While the expense was authorized by SFB in 2015, it highlighted the recurring trend of using the SAF for purposes not specific to student organization funding.

According to Mitchals, the College lacks sufficient funds to pay for its own projects.

“Every higher education institution’s budget is tight,” he said.

The school saw an avenue in excess SFB reserves and took advantage under the reasoning that the renovations benefit co-curricular activities on campus, which is the general goal of the SAF, according to Mitchals.

Yet, Mitchals finds fault with that justification.

“Student Activity Fees should not be utilized for on-campus building no matter what, even if it benefits students,” he said. He also said that there are other historic budgets, like facility budgets or bonds that are issued by the school, that should be used for that purpose.

SFB has become a convenient go-to for funding through the SAF, according to Mitchals.

“Just as time has progressed, the amount of requests we get, they’re crazy and just continue to increase,” Mitchals said.

In the 2015 fiscal year — when there was $1.2 million in SAF reserves —  Hecht had taken $900,000 out of reserves, a separate account from the general SAF budget, in order to fund mascot costumes and other equipment. SFB is in full support of what the money is funding both in terms of the equipment and the new potential staff. The question that arises, though, is whether or not this money should be coming out of SAF.

Ideally, the money should not be coming from the SAF budget at all, yet there is nothing that explicitly says that Hecht is not allowed to take money out to pay for staff, according to Mitchals. In fact, the definition now allows for it.

Both Mitchals and Alexandra Wallach, financial director for SFB and a senior accounting major, agreed the definition of SAF’s function, which comes from the Office of the Treasurer, was changed online. While they don’t know exactly when it was changed, they discovered in the beginning of this semester that the definition online had changed sometime in 2016.

Whereas both definitions acknowledge that SFB is responsible for the allocation and management of the funds, the updated definition now includes “personnel costs” as part of SAF’s function, which was not included in the original definition.

“The No. 1 primary definition you go off of is whatever the Office of the Treasurer is putting out primarily because they’re the ones dealing with students tuition and what I assume is that Student Accounts and possibly (Student Affairs) just haven’t adopted the new definition,” Mitchals said. “But without a doubt, we allocate the SAF, so we know what the definition has and always will be, and now there’s just the change.”

Mitchals was concerned that neither SFB nor the student body were consulted in the changed definition.

“If you’re changing a definition of what a student’s tuition is used for, shouldn’t students know that?” Mitchals said. “It was 100 percent in correlation with what occurred with the (vice president of Student Affairs) with allocating the SAF with allocating staff wages.”

According to Hecht, SAF’s definition was not changed.

“The definition of SAF has not changed. This fee was created almost 30 years ago by the board of trustees (like all fees), to enhance student life and programs,” Hecht said. “That does include funding activities by students for students — which is the majority of how those funds are used. However, to continue to enhance student life and program, full-time staff is necessary and can be considered an enhancement to student life and programs.”

A previous version of the fees reads, “The Student Activity Fee is collected by The College on behalf of the Student Finance Board (SFB). The SFB is responsible for allocation and management of the funds. The SFB is comprised of various clubs, service organizations and activities of the college campus for the purpose of enriching the cocurricular life of the college community,” according to studentaccounts.tcnj.edu/files/2013/10/Description-of-Fees.pdf.

The Signal has a physical copy of a document called “Description of Mandatory Fees” printed in the Fall 2015 semester that states, “The primary goal of the SFB is to allocate the Student Activity Fund to various student clubs and student service organizations for the purpose of enriching the co-curricular life of the college community.”

A portion of the SAF definition currently reads, “The primary goal of the SFB is to allocate the Student Activity Fund to various student clubs and student service organizations for the purpose of enriching the co-curricular life (including personnel costs) of the college community.”

The link to this is studentaccounts.tcnj.edu/files/2016/10/Description-of-Fees-NEW.pdf, which may indicate this is a more recent file.

There has been some miscommunication between the Office of the Treasurer and Office of Student Affairs, according to Hecht. The current definition on the website is inaccurate and needed to be updated years ago, she said.

Regardless, Blakeley suggested a different potential financial outlet for Hecht’s financial needs — Hecht’s own budget. He acknowledged, though, that the Office of Student Affairs’ budget might be tighter than SFB’s.

“It’s her staff, her office pays… for all the people in the staff,” he said. “She thought this was a way of getting the staff she needed without trying to impede on other things.”

In order to battle the blow, SFB plans on cutting its members’ wages by 10 percent and base budgeting different club expenses like SG. Mitchals said they’re going to be more rigorous when it comes to club applications and deciding what to fund. While this is the most delicate way of saving money, it hurts clubs’ future budgets — most won’t see growth any time soon.

Taiwo Akinmboni, treasurer of the Association of Students for Africa and a senior business management major, said the organization started facing issues this year with SFB.

ASFA holds an annual event called “Akwaaba,” which is a banquet for students interested in learning more about African culture and watching authentic cultural performances with guests from outside the College. This year, with the club’s budget

Akwaaba loses some SFB funding. (Photo courtesy of Taiwo Akinmboni)

capped at around $4,000, it was hard to find a performer at a good price and pay for the expenses as well as other events throughout the semester.

The club wanted to spend $2,000 on a performer for its event, and SFB had to turn down the request. Akinmboni eventually did find one who would perform for a cheaper price, but the search wasn’t easy.

Ziyi Wang, a junior finance major and SFB’s current operations manager, will be taking on the role of executive director for SFB next semester. Although his hands will be full with the SAF issues he will be inheriting from Mitchals, Wang is confident about taking on the new position and aims to please different campus organizations while keeping SFB’s shaky budget in mind.

He plans to encourage more club co-sponsorship next year, suggesting that clubs with similar events in mind combine their ideas and host one event instead of two separate ones.

“We don’t want collaborations to feel forced,” Wang said, “but at the end of the day, if the balance of the SAF is starting to get pretty low, groups will be forced to collaborate to have events they want to have.”

He plans on working closely with Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Angela Chong, who will replace Hecht next year as vice president for Student Affairs, in order to mitigate SFB spending.

“Instead of seeing a year-to-year increase in how much a student organization receives, we’ll see a stagnation in the amount they’ll be receiving in terms of funding,” Wang said.

While Akinmboni didn’t see a problem with collaborating with other clubs for smaller get togethers, he didn’t see a benefit to co-sponsoring its annual event, a program the club works hard on and looks forward to every year.

“It would take away from our mission and goal (as an organization),” he said.

ASFA is not the only organization facing budget caps and cuts.

In an open forum on March 29, SFB discussed potential expense reduction ideas with different club representatives, which included cutting funding for student employee wages, Loop Bus trips and club retreats.

This also includes cutting The Signal’s funding in half. According to SFB reports, $800 of SAF currently goes toward printing each edition. SFB plans to reduce the amount to $400, which could save approximately $11,500 in expenses a year.

While Blakely acknowledged how detrimental this seize was for SFB, and that its budget has been greatly misused, there is still hope that the positions the SAF will fund will be money well spent.

From a club’s perspective, the options may currently seem bleak, but these new positions may be able to help each club’s goal of enhancing student life.

“If these two positions are really going to help us then that’s great, we made the right decision,” Blakeley said. “If (they) are really helping the student body and doing their purpose, it may have been worth it.”