By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
HIGHLAND HEIGHTS - Northern Kentucky University President James Votruba emerged from a student government meeting last Thursday where he took another verbal beating over money.
"The students want to know, and rightfully so, why in the world should they have to pay another 20 percent increase in tuition," Votruba said after the two-hour meeting. "They ask me why isn't the state doing a better job for us financially. I don't have a good answer for them."
When it comes to state money, NKU lags behind every other public university in the state, even the conglomeration of community colleges and technical schools known as the KCTCS.
HOW NKU RANKS
Northern Kentucky University is at the bottom of the list compared to other public universities in the amount of state money it gets for each full-time student in the current budget year.
University of Kentucky - $13,235
Kentucky State Univ. - $10,764
University of Louisville - $10,169
Murray State Univ. - $5,917
Eastern Kentucky Univ. - $5,671
Morehead State Univ. - $5,211
Western Kentucky Univ. - $4,504
Community college, technical school system (KCTCS) - $4,234
Northern Kentucky Univ.- $3,791
Without a boost in revenue, the university might have to raise tuition as much as 20 percent, Votruba has said.
But with a new administration in Frankfort and a legislative session that begins next month, Northern Kentucky lawmakers are speaking enthusiastically and optimistically about support for an increase in the university's funding.
"NKU is in the best position it's ever been in going into this (January) session of the General Assembly," said Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, who represents southern Kenton County in Frankfort.
Almost to a member Northern Kentucky's other legislators have made similar comments about the university's standing in Frankfort.
But talk is cheaper than the arena, the new classrooms and the increase in funding the university needs.
And with the state facing a budget shortfall of $250 million this year and a potential shortfall next year of $700 million, university officials, and even some legislators, are wondering where and how they'll come up with any extra cash for the school.
"I see more unity among our Northern Kentucky caucus and a willingness to allocate resources for our region and NKU," Votruba said. "The governor and his people have expressed to me the importance of NKU. I've heard the same thing from (Senate President) David Williams and (House Speaker) Jody Richards.
"My concern is not with the recognition of our situation, but whether there is the wherewithal to do something about it," he said.
The university's financial needs start with what is known as "benchmark funding," the amount of state money each public university receives annually in the budget.
Not only is NKU last among every school, but by the state's own formula the university should receive an extra $37 million on top of the $42 million it will get this year.
The university also has two major construction needs.
Most needed, Votruba said, is $20 million to renovate an old science building into classrooms. The science department moved out last year and into a new $38 million natural sciences building.
"If we don't get renovation money for the old science building, we'll have to shut the spigot off on growth," he said. "We don't have anywhere else to go for new classrooms."
The most important project from a community standpoint is an arena that would be used for NKU athletic and other university and community events, Votruba said.
The arena could cost as much as $40 million. Lawmakers have hinted that while it's unlikely that much money will be available in the next budget, cash could be allocated for the initial planning and design of an arena.
"At the very least we're going for planning money in the session," said Senate President Pro Tem Dick Roeding, R-Lakeside Park. "We won't stop there, but with the budget the way it is we'll take what we can get."
Williams was in Northern Kentucky last week, but would not commit to setting aside money for the university.
Some leaders at the capital are aware of "certain problems in capital construction that have not been rectified.""There is strong support among the (Northern Kentucky) Senators and in the Republican Senate leadership for addressing that problem," he said.
House Majority Caucus Chairman Jim Callahan, D-Wilder, and Rep. Jon Draud, R-Crestview Hills, have been among the most active lawmakers in trying to secure additional funding for NKU.
"We're still realistic in terms of knowing there may not be much money in the budget to improve the situation at NKU," Thayer said. "But we're going to work with other members of the Northern Kentucky Caucus in getting Northern Kentucky University its fair share from Frankfort."
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