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Bailed out: Legislature grants DSU funding to get through coming biennium

After the previous threat of steep budget cuts, most Dickinson legislators are pleased with the outcome of a funding bill for Dickinson State University.

The Legislature approved a bill that would provide Dickinson State University enough funds to keep its nursing program. Photo by Ellie Potter/The Dickinson Press
The Legislature approved a bill that would provide Dickinson State University enough funds to keep its nursing program. Photo by Ellie Potter/The Dickinson Press

After the previous threat of steep budget cuts, most Dickinson legislators are pleased with the outcome of a funding bill for Dickinson State University.

"I think the cloud surrounding Dickinson State University is going to start fading away and the sunshine is going to start shining in," said House Majority Caucus Leader Mike Lefor, R-District 37, who was the primary advocate for DSU at the Capitol this session.

The House passed Senate Bill 2003 relating to higher education, including dollars for DSU, Thursday morning in a 71-18 vote after the Senate passed the bill Wednesday with an overwhelming majority. The legislation now awaits the signature of Gov. Doug Burgum, who is expected to sign it into law.

Overall, DSU President Thomas Mitzel and most Dickinson area lawmakers were pleased with the bill, which includes about $11.2 million in state appropriations for the university over the coming biennium. About $3.1 million of these funds was allocated to pay off loans for the Biesiot Activities Center after five banks claimed they had not received any payments for the building of the facility since the university's previous foundation was forced into receivership in late 2015.

"I have to say that the banks, they settled for less. They were great community citizens and corporate citizens for doing what they did," Lefor said. "They borrowed the money to the foundation in good faith, and that good faith was not rewarded, and so this is at least a partial attempt to get them the dollars that they agreed to settle for, so those financial institutions deserve a great deal of our respect and thanks for what they have done for Dickinson State University and our community at large."

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As part of the deal, Lefor said, the city of Dickinson agreed to pay $2.5 million and Stark County agreed to pay $375,000 over the course of the two-year budget to support the university. DSU must also use $2 million worth of its reserves. Of the $11.2 million in appropriations, the school will receive $950,000 in challenge grants-a program which provides $1 in matching funds from the state for every $2 in private donations, up to a capped amount-and more than $2 million as part of a hold-harmless provision.

Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-District 36, noted the community's support of DSU helped convince other lawmakers to support the school.

"For the general fund money we're getting, we're almost matching it dollar-for-dollar in our community," Armstrong said. "That's a big deal to try and convince someone who doesn't have DSU in their district to support it. They obviously know that the community is behind it too."

While the bill would prohibit the school from cutting its nursing department, Mitzel said such a move would be unnecessary as all programs, departments and sports teams are now safe.

The school will look at phase II of its earlier plan for budget reductions , which Mitzel shared publicly in January. While phase III of that plan would have included more severe cuts, including the loss of the nursing department and two sports teams, phase II includes a $1.2 million cut to personnel including a director position, three faculty positions and six staff positions.

The school could carve $400,000 from its marketing and outreach budget as well as other cuts to a STEM initiative and reduced funds for assorted academic equipment and technology, among other things.

"I think the resources that were given to DSU will allow for us to plan very strongly as we go forward, and we still have work to do, as all the institutions have, and we need to remain vigilant in our planning and trying to be as efficient as we can," Mitzel said. "But the budget as passed will allow for us to maintain all of our programs and will allow for us to maintain the momentum that we had built over the last year and a half to continue to go forward, so we're happy with that."

Rep. Luke Simons, R-District 36, was the only Dickinson area lawmaker to vote against the bill, a decision he made partially based on his conversations with his rural constituents. The majority of people he spoke to in the country were against bailing out DSU, he said.

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"I am dead set against bailing out the college," Simons said. "... I just don't feel like we should be bailing out bad mistakes, and those are bad mistakes."

Though he thinks Mitzel is doing an "outstanding" job leading the school, Simons also believes it's unfair to the taxpayers he represents to bail out the bad business decisions the university made in the past.

Mitzel ultimately thanked the city and county for their support and the local lawmakers for their "herculean work" in securing money for the university and helping him create a plan moving forward.

"One of the things that I have realized since coming to Dickinson, 16 months ago now, was how supportive the city and the region is toward Dickinson State University," Mitzel said. "I tell people if they have never lived outside of Dickinson, they don't realize how unique, special and strong is that connection. I'm wholly grateful to the city of Dickinson and to the county of Stark for what they have done to make sure that DSU can go forward as a very strong, four-year regional institution."

Related Topics: DICKINSON STATE UNIVERSITY
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