MCSG discovers $75,000 in surplus from student orgs

By Jonathan McJunkin

It’s unusual for a student government to have any surplus at all, but Macalester College Student Government emailed students on Tuesday with news that they had discovered up to $75,000 of excess money in the budget.

The email included a link for submitting student proposals for use of the money and a list of possible projects, which included installing card access and renovating the 10K space in the basement of Dupre Residence Hall.

Not all students were happy about the news. Ellen Washington ’13, Committee Co-Chair for Black History Month and a leader of the Black Liberation Affairs Committee, said she was “really confused and then really furious” when she read the email. She found MCSG’s use of money that was once allocated to student organizations presumptuous.
“When I received that email from them,” Washington said, “proclaiming that they had stumbled, almost by magic, upon $75,000 worth of student organization money and that they would not only be using as if was theirs, but have the nerve to tell us that we could submit our ideas for their approval, to say the least, I was not pleased.”

Owen Truesdell ’11, the President of MCSG, explained the plans for the money in more detail, as well as how such a large amount of money could appear so suddenly in the budget.

According to Truesdell, MCSG receives the money to fund student organizations from the Student Activity Fee. This money is split evenly between the two semesters, and typically 60 percent of funds are set aside in the budget, with 40 percent left over for specific uses and discretionary spending.

Rollover-which led to the surplus-happens either when money is not given out to clubs or when clubs under-spend the money they are given. Unspent money in student organization accounts automatically rolls over into the operating budget at the end of the year. According to Truesdell, this accounts for most of the current surplus.

“We could allocate all the money and still have some left over,” he said. “Student organization’s eyes are bigger than their stomachs sometimes. They plan and get funding for a lot of large projects that they don’t end up doing, or that they scale back.”

Washington criticized this system of dealing with under-spending, saying it lacks transparency.

“Every org leader knows that the money they don’t spend magically disappears at the end of every semester, but what we don’t know is where it goes or why it goes there,” Washington said, “we should have been given a proper explanation as to why money allocated to organizations becomes MCSG money.”

At the beginning of the academic year, MCSG was told by the Business Services Office that there would be no rollover available. Typically, there is between $10,000 and $15,000 annually. In late November, MCSG asked for confirmation that the unusual lack of funds was correct.In early February, MCSG was informed of the surplus. Truesdell said that the two-month wait between discovering the surplus and informing students of its existence was necessary.

“We wanted to make sure they were correct obviously,” he said, “and we also wanted to find out what this meant-is this a problem on our end, with student organizations-we wanted to roll the news out in an intentional fashion, and we always wanted it to be public. Frankly, it’s too big of a decision for 26 people [MCSG members].”

As for how such a large amount of money could go unnoticed for so long, Truesdell mostly cited logistical issues.

“The accounting system [Banner] used by Macalester College sucks,” he said.

One step MCSG is taking to improve the accounting system for student organizations is next year’s installation of OrgSync software-something they had planned to do before this semester. This will allow individual organizations to view their transaction history, not just their balance, something that is not currently possible under Banner.

Truesdell insisted that the Business Office is not to blame for the accounting errors. “They handle the accounting for the entire campus and MCSG is pretty low on the totem pole,” he said, ” If anything, the computer system used by the college is to blame for the lack of awareness.”

Truesdell also responded to concerns in light of the surplus about events that had been given significantly less than they requested, such as Black History Month and Latino Week. Black History month ultimately received $10,157.90 from MCSG and Program Board out of an initial request for $17,884.60 from MCSG.

“We have a semester budget and we try to budget on that scale,” Truesdell said, “The role of the Financial Affairs Committee (FAC) is to look at the submissions we get and build a budget based on the numbers we have at the time. Organizations are going to be underfunded.”

To those who complain about MCSG’s budget process, Truesdell said, “Run for student government, get involved, make the decisions. It’s a flexible system, you can make huge changes to it.”

He added that the $75,000 excess in the operating budget would not be enough to significantly affect funding for student organizations in general for a long period of time. “This is a one-time thing,” Truesdell said.

In Truesdell’s opinion, the money would be best used for capital campaigns, or structural changes with a lasting impact on the school, rather than operational campaigns that would continue or increase funding for ongoing programs.

“A lot of people who contributed to this fund won’t be around,” said Truesdell, “so we should do something with an impact that will last several years. It’s also a great opportunity-students don’t have a say in big impact projects like this pretty much ever.”

Washington argued that the money should remain with the student organizations it was allocated to. “It was student organization money to begin with and I believe it should remain that way,” Washington said. “There are clearly some structural issues with MCSG, FAC and the accounting office and I believe this is the perfect opportunity for students to make steps towards identifying and correcting the lack of transparency when it comes to money.”

“MCSG could have taken this opportunity to express how important student orgs are on this campus and put the funding towards next year’s budget-or in a crazy world, just let the orgs keep the money that was allocated to them,” she said.

The role of the administration in whatever students decide to do with the money will be limited. MCSG will essentially only ask about the feasibility of whatever project they decide to do and work with facilities to perform or contract-out the actual work.

MCSG plans to continue to take student idea submissions until Sunday, after which they will narrow down the list to five to seven ideas, which will be presented to students in a referendum in the next several weeks. The results of the referendum will be used to choose how the money is used.

“Since this surplus comes from student funds,” said Brett Srader ’12, a junior class representative, “I believe it is vital that we include the student body throughout the process both to uphold our responsibilities as their representatives but also to ensure that any project we fund has the support of the majority of students.