After years of budget deficits that prompted deep staffing and program cuts, the University of Maine System is finally forecasting a budget surplus, according to the latest five-year financial projections.

A report to be presented to the system’s trustees Monday at their meeting in Bangor shows the current $7 million deficit slowly shrinking over the next few years until 2021, when it anticipates the budget will be $400,000 in the black.

“I’m very excited,” said the system’s chief financial officer, Ryan Low. “In all my time here, this is the first time we’ve had a positive year.”

The system has faced budget deficits since it began multi-year financial projections in 2009.

To close the budget gaps in recent years, the board of trustees has voted to slash personnel, lay off tenured professors, cut undergraduate and graduate programs, and restructure the system to consolidate support services such as human resources, finance and information technology. The moves prompted student protests, including the takeover of a trustees meeting in 2014.

“We’ve made some really difficult choices,” Low said. “As we’ve lost students, we’ve right-sized.”


Turning the financial corner will make a big difference, Low said.

“We’re starting to see the opportunities going forward. It’s hard to think about investment when you constantly have this gap hanging over your head,” he said.

The 2021 projection relies on certain financial factors going forward, including annual increases in tuition and the state’s subsidy tied to the rate of inflation, and enrollment increasing about 1.5 percent a year.

That means in-state tuition, currently $8,370 at the University of Maine in Orono, would gradually rise to $9,165 a year by 2021, a 9.5 percent increase. The current $187.3 million state appropriation would need to increase by the same percentage, to $205.2 million in 2021.

“Do we think that (appropriation increase) is realistic? Absolutely we do,” said Low, a former commissioner of the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services and former Gov. John Baldacci’s state budget officer. “We’re not asking (lawmakers) to solve our problems. We’re asking them to be a partner in this.”

The most recent five-year projection, issued late last year, forecast a 2020 budget gap of $22.4 million.


The financial crisis was fueled by the recession, which clobbered higher education institutions nationwide as most states cut funding and colleges were forced to raise tuition to make up lost revenue. Maine raised tuition at first, then struck a deal with lawmakers to freeze tuition in exchange for not having the state subsidy cut. This fall will be the sixth year of tuition freezes, and last year was the first time the system got a slight increase in its state subsidy.

The system also has made deep staffing cuts since its employment peaked in 2007 at 5,413 full-time-equivalent workers. Officials have eliminated more than 900 positions since then.

Also Monday, the trustees will vote on a $523.4 million budget for the fiscal year beginning in July. Low said the fiscal year 2017 budget initially had a $20 million deficit, but that gap has been closed primarily with $4.6 million from Gov. Paul LePage in exchange for not raising tuition, $3 million in one-time emergency funds, $3.3 million from campus reserves and $1.3 million in budget stabilization funds.

The budget, already endorsed by the trustees’ finance committee, is expected to pass.

Without the additional funds from the governor, the system would have had to raise tuition by 2.3 percent, Low said.

The budget gap was much smaller than in previous years. The trustees had to use $7.2 million in emergency funds and eliminate 157 positions across the seven campuses to balance the $518 million budget for fiscal year 2016, which ends in June.


Aaron Chadbourne, the governor’s education policy adviser, said the $4.6 million provided in exchange for freezing tuition would be added to the system’s baseline budget going forward. Under the proposal, the governor would put the funding in a supplemental budget next January. It would still need to be approved by the Legislature.

LePage is also promising $2.5 million in one-time funding for Early College programs for high school students taking college-level courses, pre-law programs for needy students, and scholarships for adult learners.

During the university system’s tuition freeze over the past five years, there has been an average tuition increase of 13 percent at public universities nationwide. In-state tuition and fees at the flagship campus in Orono are about $10,606 per year, slightly higher than the national average of $9,410. Tuition at the University of Southern Maine is about $8,000 annually.

The trustees also will take up the renewal of Chancellor James Page’s contract, the first significant review of his job performance since he was hired in 2012. Page, the former CEO of his family’s Old Town-based international consulting firm, is the first Maine native and the first alumnus of the university system to hold the position.


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