A wrap-up of today's MnSCU reserves story

Room to breathe

Students might well be able to attend Minnesota’s state-run colleges and universities through summer and into fall, now that Gov. Mark Dayton has agreed to let them have access to tens of millions of dollars in state-held reserves.

MnSCU Chairman Scott Thiss announced at a finance meeting this morning that the system will have access to more than $94 million — funds that it already has but which are held in state accounts — even if the state government shut down July 1 over a budget impasse. The system would also be able to operate on revenues such as tuition receipts and various fund balances at each of the system’s colleges and universities.

The deal, if approved by a court, would erase a huge worry from the minds of students and staff. For weeks they have feared that a shutdown would halt summer classes and campus construction, delay graduation for some students, and disrupt financial aid and fall registration for others.

The agreement would also allow MnSCU to cancel layoff notices that were sent to 6,000 employees, MnSCU officials said.

“Everybody is taking a deep breath here,” Thiss said after the meeting.

After Thiss made the announcement, Minnesota State University – Moorhead President Edna Mora Szymanski hugged a MnSCU staffer and said, “I feel so much better. So much better.”

Thiss said Dayton’s decision came this morning after MnSCU officials presented their case to the governor about why MnSCU should have access to the money. Minnesota Management and Budget is supposed to sign an agreement soon to provide the payroll and payment processing necessary for MnSCU to stay open.

CFO Laura King pressed the importance of this to the board:

“The fall semester risk here was tremendous. This takes that risk away.”

A shutdown would have left any campus construction projects unfinished — and a few hundred MSU-Moorhead students without a place to live.

Moorhead President Szymanski said:

“We’re in the process of renovating a dorm. And we have it completely gutted. And 300 students are going to live there in September. If we had had to stop construction, we might have had a tent city.”

A shutdown could have cost the state students and future workers through poaching by other states, Thiss said:

“Some of our border schools — MSU Moorhead for example — new students are being recrutited by the North Dakota schools. If we were to lose those students as freshmen, we would probably lose them for four years, and then the state may lose them as potential employees. They might not come back.”

Chancellor James McCormick thanked student leaders who wrote letters to the governor stressing the importance of keeping MnSCU open, saying, “Lletters from students mean a lot.”

Despite all the congratulations, the agreement must still be approved by a court, Dayton spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci told MPR reporter Catharine Richert.

Dayton’s petition to the court does recommend that MnSCU continue to operate, because it has its own money. But Tinucci said it’s still up to the courts to decide whether Minnesota Management and Budget employees will be around to keep the cash flowing.

MnSCU spokeswoman Melinda Voss told me, however:

“The information we’ve gotten makes it pretty clear that we’ll be able to remain open. We wouldn’t have (made the announcement) if we had not been confident it was going to work.”

In any case, without a state higher education bill to guide the way, MnSCU still faces a long budget road. At one point after breaking the news, Thiss told MnSCU trustees and staff:

“It’s a good announcement. Back to work.”