Annual budget funds living cost reductions, Thurston renovations

Students will see reductions in living costs as officials fund Thurston Hall renovations and save for extra potential costs in this fiscal year’s budget.

The Board of Trustees in May approved a more than $1 billion operating budget for the fourth consecutive year and a $83.2 million capital budget, which will fund construction and renovation projects. Officials said the budget, which went into effect July 1, will support University President Thomas LeBlanc’s strategic initiatives by prioritizing campus improvements.

“The budget represents the University’s efforts to cover baseline operations and focus on strategic long-term investments to enhance the student experience and update infrastructure, including the information technology,” University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said in an email.

She said the capital budget, which rose about $30 million from last fiscal year, will fund renovations in Thurston Hall and for the “building envelope” – the windows, exterior walls, skylights, and roof – of the Flagg Building, which houses the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. The arts building experienced ceiling leaks last year.

The capital budget also allocates funding to upgrade equipment in the University’s “academic and research facilities” and make improvements to Guthridge and JBKO halls, Csellar said.

She added that the operating budget includes funding for 45 tenure-track searches and “performance-based merit raises” for both faculty and staff.

While officials have released budget summaries on the University Budget Office website by the end of May in the past two years, they did not release a similar document this year. Csellar declined to say why officials decided to not post a fiscal year 2020 budget summary this year.

She also declined to say how administrators’ announcement that the University would cut undergraduate enrollment by 20 percent over five years will affect GW’s finances in the future.

Reducing student living costs
The budget includes about $1 million to reduce laundry and printing fees and eliminate the cost to student organizations to rent spaces like Lisner Auditorium and the City View Room in the Elliott School of International Affairs. The funding follows a push from Student Association leaders, who proposed the initiative in April.

The budget also provides students with 24 free washing and drying cycles each semester and a $30 printing credit for the academic year.

Ellen Zane, the board’s vice chair and chair of the finance and investments committee, said at the board’s May meeting that while the University will incur a new expense, the funding will help make GW more affordable for students.

“The idea here is to not nickel and dime our student body and to hope that we can alleviate some of the minutiae that has plagued our students,” she said.

LeBlanc told The Hatchet in May that the elimination of rental space fees was “critical” because it will build community by removing barriers for student organizations to host events.

“We have to stop charging our students for using these spaces,” he said. “We want to create a community, we want them to have organizations, we want them to be able to use these spaces.”

LeBlanc said the cost reductions are a direct result of student feedback, and he hopes to continue having a productive relationship with the SA to make reasonable improvements to the student experience like the reduction of laundry and printing fees.

“We’re not giving people infinite printing for free,” he said. “We are recognizing there is a baseline need for printing, and we ought to provide that. Similarly, we’re not giving infinite laundry for free. There’s a baseline and we recognize it.”

Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, said including students in the budget process brings student concerns to the forefront of the board’s priorities.

“Students definitely appreciate that,” Kelchen said. “Even if it doesn’t change much of what’s happening in practice, it’s good for board members to do that because many of them haven’t been in college for a long time.”

He added that the proposal will reduce the costs of living on campus that are not included in GW’s sticker price, which provides students with more financial certainty.

Approving Thurston Hall renovations
The board approved funding for the “first phase” of Thurston Hall’s renovations, which are expected to cost $80 million in total. The revamp comes after years of student requests to update the 90-year-old building, GW’s largest residence hall.

The renovations include the construction of a “three-season atrium” penthouse and community spaces alongside a “complete interior renovation,” according to the approved project plan designed by VMDO Architects. The new hall will accommodate 825 students in double and single rooms when renovations finish – a reduction of about 255 students from its existing occupancy.

Csellar said the renovations will “serve as the footprint to transform the first year residential life experience.”

Officials are seeking zoning approvals to temporarily change the campus plan during the renovations, which start next year. The proposals include housing 198 students in existing on-campus beds, 305 upperclassmen in One Washington Circle Hotel and 238 upperclassmen in Aston Hall.

Nate Johnson, the owner and principal consultant of Postsecondary Analytics, LLC – an educational consulting firm – said officials may choose to pass on the costs of the renovations to students through increases in room and board or tuition. He added that the decision to allocate students credits for printing and laundry could be one way for officials to balance that increase in the cost of living on campus.

“In addition to the high cost of tuition, the high cost of living is a big factor in affordability, which is probably something that’s driving their decision behind the subsidies or reducing the costs for laundry and photocopying,” he said.

Planning for emergencies
The operating budget includes $2 million in contingency funding, which officials said will help the University prepare for unexpected emergencies.

“Funding for contingencies will continue to be included in the budget to provide a cushion for unplanned or unforeseen circumstances in future years,” Csellar said.

Ozan Jaquette, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that while contingency funds can help universities prepare for rainy days, the funding in GW’s fiscal year 2020 budget is “relatively modest.”

“$2 million is a piddling amount of money for universities like George Washington University,” Jaquette said. “So I don’t think much should be made of this, regardless of what it’s for.”

Parth Kotak and Ilena Peng contributed reporting.

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