Cory Struble: Getting the finance debate right

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In the Hatchet’s interactive debate earlier this week, I asked Student Association candidates via YouTube how they would streamline the financial process for student organizations. I prefaced this question with the assertion that the discussion on student org finances has thus far been superficial because many candidates haven’t run student organizations and therefore don’t really understand the obstacles student org leaders face. Though I argued that the primary problem is accessing the funds we do have rather than the number amount we receive, most candidates answered my question by promising to increase funding for student groups; if this is the solution, they don’t know the problem.

That procuring more funds for student organizations is nearly impossible should be understood by now – a ballot initiative to increase the student fee failed once last year and only passed a second time when it guaranteed that the fee increase would be nominal and grandfathered in to charge future but not current students.

Instead of promising to increase the relatively small pot that the finance committee has to work with, the SA should focus on internally overhauling its allocation process. Currently, after receiving an “operational budget” at the beginning of the year, student groups are required to subsequently submit any programming-related cost, event by event, to a line-item veto by a committee of eight senators whom are unlikely to have any real knowledge of that organization or its goals.

A whopping $319,000 could be taken out of this programming reserve and instantly double the initial budget allocation of every student organization on campus. In the future, the finance committee should request initial budgets that are both programmatic and operational in nature while implementing criteria based on a variety of factors including membership size, past success of programming, number of students affected by the organization’s activities, impact on the student community, and uniqueness of the organization on campus.

However, though these changes would increase the amount of money directly given to organizations, they still don’t get around to my original point: regardless of how much money we receive through the initial allocation or subsequent programming co-sponsorships, access to funds remains the primary obstacle.

For example, if College Democrats wish to hire a speaker (which will likely range in price from $5,000 to $10,000), we are required to send the contract to the University at least six weeks in advance to cut a check. This is largely understandable – though the window of time could be significantly shortened. More crucially, however, are smaller expenditures in the $300 to $1000 range that constitute the bulk of our purchases. If we are not buying from a GW institution like Sodexho or Marvin Center, which is often the case, student leaders are responsible for using their personal financial means to make purchases while waiting anywhere from six weeks to three months for a reimbursement. These charges are usually made with credit cards that accrue interest, which is not reimbursed.

This problem is fairly intricate and only frustrates those who lead student organizations. Even if some student leaders are comfortable with this process, as a matter of principle, this policy inherently privileges those who possess the means to rack up hundreds if not thousands of dollars in student organization charges and should thus be considered a barrier to access for students without such means. At such an expensive school where very real issues of class diversity are often glossed over, SAC should seek to adopt policies that are overwhelming inclusive, especially when it comes to money. Equally important, this is a practical issue in which many of our efforts are impeded because we can’t use money that we own.

The next crew of SA leaders should thus take the initiative to lobby administrators and SAC faculty with suggestions to create a new set of practices that resolve these issues. Given the unusually high number of student organizations on campus, SAC should employ more financial officers to process student requests and thereby expedite the reimbursement process. We should consider and adopt smart policies that allow student organizations to access funds quickly. The idea of organization debit cards raises trust issues but can be done within reasonable limits. SAC can also move to allow student leaders to request the approval and quick release of checks for smaller purchases.

GW organizations do great things. It’s time these organizations get the money and resources needed to accomplish even greater things. This is just one issue among many – but if the discourse is elevated, meaningful change can be made.

The writer, Cory Struble, is President of both GW College Democrats and the D.C. Federation of College Democrats.

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