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Spokesman Review (Spokane, WA)
MOSCOW, Idaho — The University of Idaho has at least a one-year reprieve to deal with a projected deficit of approximately $1 million in athletics funding.
The Idaho Board of Education, which is also UI's Board of Regents, voted unanimously Thursday to give university officials a year to come up with a plan to balance the athletics budget. Idaho must report to the board at least annually and possibly semi-annually on the progress of developing and implementing that plan, and any deficit must be erased by 2021 or 2022 at the latest if the board believes the university is making adequate progress in eliminating the shortfall.
If the board does not believe UI is making satisfactory progress during that time frame, it can direct the university to balance the budget immediately, which would almost certainly result in the elimination of some programs. .
Board policy requires Idaho public higher education institutions to limit deficit funding to no more than two years without a waiver. A year ago, the board granted such a waiver to Idaho, and it extended it Thursday. Without the waiver, the university this year would have been forced to eliminate women's soccer, women's swimming and men's golf, according to UI president Chuck Staben.
UI administrators have proposed to the board a concept of adding three sports — men's swimming, women's triathlon and rifle (a sport with both men and women on the roster). Competitors would be granted out-of-state tuition waivers but would pay in-state tuition and fees. The university would be able to count that money as athletics revenue.
In addition, UI could potentially increase fundraising associated with athletics. Staben acknowledged Idaho officials will take a hard look at partially funding athletics scholarships and covering the difference with academic scholarship revenue. While UI fully funds all athletics scholarships now, Staben said the school probably can't afford to in the future.
While the board granted the waiver, there was discontent among some members.
"This is not the first waiver that has been requested and granted," board member David Hill said.
Idaho was supposed to report to the board this year with a plan to eliminate its athletics deficit and not request another waiver, Hill added.
Board President Linda Clark noted UI told the board only several weeks ago it would request an extension to the waiver.
"I hope we are not placed in this situation again of having to make a decision at the last hour," she said.
The prospect that the university might have to cut sports has rallied a host of Vandals athletes, coaches and others. Seven such supporters addressed the board in an open forum before the vote. Among them were Joel Shinofield, executive director of the College Swimming and Diving Coaches Association, and Shawn Chevreux, marketing director for the United Soccer Coaches Association.
While Staben said the athletics deficit is not related to UI leaving the Football Bowl Subdivision — where it competed for the past two decades — and returning to the Football Championship Subdivision, Chevreux referred to that move as unprecedented.
"Now allow the university to do something unprecedented to deal with the ramifications of that," Chevreux said.
Shinofield called UI's plan to count student-athletes' financial contribution as revenue as "not creative accounting but full accounting." He also wondered what would happen if Idaho were forced to cut some sports because the board did not continue the waiver,
"What is your plan to replace the students who are paying tuition and thriving academically?" he asked.
Kelly Dobke, captain of Idaho's soccer team, and Emily Kliewer, a Vandals swimmer, told the board about the value of athletics to student-athletes.
"(Vote) not just to save the three teams now but to encourage a program that will provide leaders for years to come," Kliewer told board members.
"Consider this a defining moment in your service," Dobke said to board members about allowing Idaho additional time to deal with the athletics deficit.
"We're all in, ready to help and be a part of this," said Mona Haas, mother of Vandals freshman soccer player Maddie Haas. "But we need that waiver. We need some time."
Mark Boatman, president of the Vandal Scholarship Fund, an independent booster organization supporting Idaho athletics, said UI's athletics budget problems were a scathing indictment of Staben's leadership. He said UI athletics director Rob Spear spoke to the VSF a year ago about the proposal to add sports and count the tuition and fees participants pay as revenue.
At the time, Staben reprimanded Spear for advancing the proposal, Boatman said. He called Staben's support of the measure now "leading from behind." He also said the VSF national board would take a vote of no confidence in Staben's leadership on April 27.
"He clearly does not feel I am an effective leader for the university," Staben said after the board gave UI additional time to address its deficit.
But Staben also pointed to Idaho's challenge in athletics fundraising. He said the VSF was an important group for raising money for athletics scholarships.
"They've done that many years," he said. "They've raised roughly the same amount many years."
In contrast, institutional fundraising overall has set records four of the five years he has been president, Staben said.
He acknowledged the board's action leaves the coaches of sports that face possible elimination at an ongoing disadvantage in recruiting, since the threat UI may have to cut those sports has not been entirely lifted.
"Had the board given us a multiyear waiver, those coaches would feel more secure," Staben said.
But Idaho at least has an opportunity now to make progress on erasing its athletics deficit without immediately having to eliminate sports.
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