(WORT) — In an era of constant cuts to state funding, enterprising university administrators do what they can to make the most of a bad situation. Last year, Governor Scott Walker approved a $250 million cut to the University of Wisconsin System’s state funding. After declining to hold any of its institutions harmless against those cuts, UW System charged UW Extension’s Cooperative division with cutting $3.6 million annually.
In a statement released Wednesday, University of Wisconsin Extension administrators said the situation created “an urgent need to reduce budgets, but also a chance to consider modernizing structures and services.”
Their budget reduction plan is optimistically called “nEXT Generation,” and it includes provisions to consolidate services, eliminate positions, and charge fees for more of its services.
UW Colleges and Extension Chancellor Cathy Sandeen says the plan reflects considerable public input.
“In December, I received recommendations and, after sifting and winnowing those ideas, I distributed those publicly and had a period of over one month for input.”
Sandeen says that input factored into how Extension delineated the multi-county areas that will now be sharing staff. Programs that depend heavily on volunteers will most likely be maintained at a local level, but certain county agents would have to cover an area as large as 5 counties.
Dane, Waukesha, and Milwaukee Counties will remain single-county areas because of their population size.
Sandeen estimates that 80 positions will be cut starting later this year, but could not say which ones are most likely to be eliminated. Those decisions will fall to the steering committee, which is made up of Extension, county, and other stakeholder representatives.
Sandeen says this is an opportune moment to consider charging more fees for some of its research-based programs, like their trademarked “e-parenting” curriculum.
Sandeen says Cooperative Extension would continue to offer these services at no extra cost to its Wisconsin partners, but wants to find more markets out of state.
“Much of what we do is of great interest…outside the state, so it makes sense that we might think about ways that we might monetize outside of the state of Wisconsin.”
Jackie Gehin, Youth Development Program Advisor for Dane County Cooperative Extension, says her office has already explored many of these options for finding revenue and cutting costs during previous rounds of cuts.
“We may have to be very creative in how we bring in some funding to keep staff and to keep some of the programs alive, and we’ll just have to see how that plays out.”
Gehin hopes popular programs like 4-H, Master Gardener, and community clubs will continue with minimal changes, but says they may have to rely even more on our volunteers.
Noel Radomski, director of the WISCAPE higher education policy center at UW Madison, says the restructuring plans announced this week have been in the works since 2012.
UW System President Ray Cross, then the Chancellor of Colleges and Extension, received restructuring recommendations from Huron Consultants that included ”regionalizing” Extension’s services.
“The latest state budget cuts provided the opportunity to implement that plan for consolidation” Radomski says.
Although Gehin is still playing what she calls a “wait-and-see” game, she continues to hear from Dane County residents who are concerned with the impact of cuts to beloved and needed Cooperative Extension programming.
“People need these services,” Gehin says, “especially for people who may not have the resources they need to provide their family with food for the entire month, we provide education on financial management so that they can continue to provide for their family, not just food, but everything.”
For now, Dane County residents who benefit from Cooperative Extension’s programming are also going to have to wait and see what impact “nEXT Generation” will have on them.