Wright State budget troubles: ‘Snowball rolled downhill, and we were left to deal with that’

Tighter budgets the rule going forward, trustees told

Wright State University trustees considered a new university budget Friday, preparing for what administrators believe will be lower enrollment and state funding.

Though Wright State leaders now expect a budgetary surplus of about $1 million by the end of this fiscal year, long-term demographic, educational and enrollment trends are not on the institution’s side, said Greg Sample, the university’s chief operating officer.

Administrators are budgeting for $210.2 million in total revenue and operating expenses in fiscal 2021, down from revenue of about $257 million this fiscal year.

The university’s enrollment has declined steadily since 2016, long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Sample told trustees in a live-streamed virtual trustees meeting.

There has been a 12 percent fall in enrollment from 2017 to 2019, trustees were also told Friday. About 10,700 students are expected in the fall semester of 2020, on a main Fairborn campus built for about 20,000 students.

“Our traditional students, the student who would normally come here, that population is declining,” Sample told trustees, adding a few moments later: “We’ve built infrastructure for a far greater number of students than we’ll have moving forward.”

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University leaders have tried to prepare the campus for job cuts. Wright State will cut 50 positions, a campus email from President Sue Edwards announced this week. That’s on top of more than 30 employees who have agreed to retire early.

Wright State’s three-year plan is aimed at falling expenses and revenues, with an end point of projected revenues of nearly $208 million in fiscal 2023.

“We know that enrollment is going to stabilize at some point. Where that might be will be lower than where it is today,” Sample said.

Sample and his staff told trustees to expect a “significant reduction” in state instruction funding, more than $16 million at this point. The pandemic has thrown a wrecking ball into the overall state budget.

“The snowball rolled downhill, and we were left to deal with that,” Sample said.

Hiring has been frozen. And university leaders hope to liquidate investments into Wright State’s Double Bowler entity and to end financial support of WSARC, the Wright State Applied Research Corp.

Double Bowler Properties Corp., an affiliated entity of the university, was at the center of an Ohio inspector general’s investigation that concluded last year with findings that the private nonprofit real estate corporation violated state law and improperly paid a former congressman for lobbying.

Sample referred to Double Bowler Friday as “always controversial.”

The university has already announced the the cancellation of its softball and men’s and women’s tennis programs.

“What we have to control and what we have controlled going forward are expenditures,” Sample said.

“When the climate gets tough, finance teams have to work more,” trustee Marty Grunder said in the meeting. “I am very grateful for your work.”

Administrators have laid the groundwork for contract talks with two university unions. But leaders of the faculty union have declined to negotiate, at least for the moment, citing concerns about protecting tenured faculty members.

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