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Colleges on dual track: shut down or remain open

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton on Wednesday says he won't accept a $34 billion, two-year budget plan from state Republicans. Tribune photo by Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system is gearing up for a government shutdown.

Or not.

A Wednesday emergency meeting of the 54-campus system's board of trustees resulted in a resolution supporting shutdown preparation. But officials said that at the same time, colleges and universities around the state need to be ready to continue running during the summer term that is under way.

"This is a one-day-at-a-time deal," said Laura King, the system's chief financial officer.

College presidents and key aides were to immediately begin shutdown preparations, setting many other duties aside.

"(Minnesota Management and Budget) is currently in discussions with MnSCU to analyze possible options and authorities for service delivery in the event of a state shutdown," Commissioner Jim Schowalter said. "Ultimately, any determination of critical services will be determined by the court system, including what services may continue to be provided by MMB."

The commissioner said that shared services, such as his department writing MnSCU checks, works well most of the time, but "a possible state shutdown raises difficult legal and process issues that we are working to address."

The impacts of a potential shutdown go beyond getting access to the money.

President Richard Davenport of Minnesota State University in Mankato told the MnSCU board that colleges in Iowa, Wisconsin and North Dakota are playing on students' fears of a shutdown and recruiting potential Minnesota students.

MnSCU officials say they have no way of knowing how many students are looking elsewhere because of the budget situation, but they take it seriously.

"This is potentially a four- to six-year impact," MnSCU Trustee Dan McElroy said, because a student who opts for a school elsewhere likely will not return to a Minnesota school.

King said the big question is: "How much damage do we suffer" from losing those students?

A summer shutdown would directly affect 67,000 students now in class, Davenport said, but also could drive away students who need to know their financial aid status in the summer. With a shutdown, no one would be available to figure out financial aid.

King said she did not know how much money would be available for the college system, but was sure it would be enough for running schools through the fall term.

About 400,000 students are expected in MnSCU schools this fall.

The University of Minnesota would be less affected by a shutdown because its governing structure is more isolated from the state. However, the system still receives nearly 20 percent of its budget from the state, so a shutdown could affect it.

There was no progress Wednesday in agreeing to a new state budget.

Following a 90-minute meeting with Republican leaders, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said he will not sign a bill spending $34 billion in the next two years, Republicans' upper limit. His latest offer was for a $35.8 billion budget.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.