WSU president promises Peninsula’s popular programs won’t be budget casualties

PORT ANGELES — Washington State University will keep its popular 4-H and Master Gardeners programs alive despite a severe budget crisis that forced the Pullman-based institution to raise tuition by 14 percent, the university president said Monday.

Elson S. Floyd, on the first day of a rare visit to the North Olympic Peninsula for a WSU president, assured civic leaders that Extension offices like those in Port Angeles and Port Hadlock will not wind up on the chopping block.

The university took a $54 million hit in the state Legislature’s 2009-2011 budget. That’s a 10.3 percent cut — and 21 percent before federal stimulus dollars and a tuition hike were added.

“The problem that we had as an institution with Extension was that we really could not charge students though their payment of tuition to help defray the costs associated with running our extension operation,” Floyd told the audience at Monday’s Port Angeles Regional Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

“So Extension did take a disproportionate hit during the last budget reduction. We’ve begun to correct for that during this budget reduction.”

Port Angeles tour

Floyd, 54, toured Port Angeles on Monday as part of his pledge to visit each of the 39 counties in the state. It was his 14th stop so far and continues in Jefferson County today and Grays Harbor County on Wednesday.

“The president of the university has never been to Port Angeles or Clallam County,” Clallam County Extension Director Curtis Beus said.

“It’s a neat event.”

After his keynote address at the chamber luncheon, Floyd met with the volunteers, staff and clients at Beus’ Clallam County Extension office.

He then took part in a roundtable discussion with government and civic leaders at Port Angeles City Hall, and capped the day at a town hall meeting at the Red Lion Hotel.

Budget crisis early on

Floyd was faced with a budget crisis shortly after becoming the 10th president of WSU in 2007. The university took a $10.5 million cut during his first year, followed by $54 million slice last year.

“Unfortunately my budget reduction scenario has not ended with the biennial cut,” he said.

An additional $13.5 million cut was made by the state Legislature this year, and a 14 percent tuition hike is slated for the 2010-2011 school year.

WSU operates extension officers throughout the state. They offer continuing education programs like the popular 4-H youth development program, Master Gardeners, Beachwatchers, economic development, food and nutrition, fire prevention and forestry programs.

Clallam taxpayers

Clallam County taxpayers spend about $130,000 per year on the Extension office — or about half of the total cost.

The county funds a portion of two salaries and donates office space and computer support at the Clallam County Courthouse.

The Clallam County Extension office has about 350 volunteers in its various programs.

WSU funds the rest and contributes other support like faculty and Web services.

Floyd said support from the county commissioners has kept it financially viable.

Extensions are the result of land grant colleges that were established by the federal government in 1900 to bring educational programs to rural areas.

It was rumored last year that the extension offices might close amid the budget crisis. Floyd quelled those rumors during Monday’s roundtable discussion.

“We never, ever contemplated cutting 4-H,” Floyd said.

“There are some signature programs that one must have within the category of institutions. As a land grant institution, obviously the Extension is important and under that particular space 4-H is absolutely crucial. . . . It’s just one of those signature programs.”

An audience member at the noon luncheon asked Floyd about the future of the Master Gardener program.

“When we looked at the core regular programs provided by Extension, the Master Gardener programs is one of those common-denominator programs across all of our Extension operations,” Floyd said.

“So we are deeply committed to the Master Gardener program. It’s a program that will also have a lot of volunteers.”

Dan Bernardo, dean of WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences, told the panel that the college did “a very nice job of not reducing the county programs.”

“In fact, we really didn’t impact our county programs at all, directly,” he said.

“So we kept the investment in the counties and I think what was really great — and I know it’s tough for the commissioners. The commissioners responded by keeping their investment in WSU Extension.”

Eventually, however, Bernardo said the budget situation will likely have an impact on signature agricultural programs.

Class to be cut

Meanwhile, the next freshman class at WSU will be cut to about 3,200 students. A recent consolidation of facility and staff will make it the smallest incoming class in the past three years.

About 14,000 students apply to Washington State every fall.

There are about 27,000 students and 5,000 employees at Washington State University, which has a $1.75 billion cumulative budget and satellite campuses in Spokane, Vancouver and the Tri-Cities.

WSU recently cut its forestry program because there were just 13 students enrolled.

“It wasn’t an easy decision for us to make by any stretch of the imagination,” Floyd said.

In addition to forestry, WSU has had to cut theater and dance, sociology and upper-level German curriculums.

Floyd said he is committed to keeping the cost of education as low as possible while producing a quality product.

He stressed the importance of accountability in the public school system and quality teachers.

“The manifestation here in this community will primarily be through the extension center, which is doing a marvelous job connecting with the community,” Floyd said.

“We want to make sure that the programs we have in place are adding to the growth of vitality of this community. That’s what we do.”

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-417-3537 or at rob.ollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

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