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UFB releases historic funding data since 2008-09, reveals over $1 million in accumulated budget surplus

Board establishes new administrative advisor, BearSync to be replaced by new platform

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, April 9, 2020

In an unprecedented release, the Undergraduate Finance Board published its historical funding records dating back to 2008-09 on its website Wednesday afternoon as a part of the Board’s continued push toward transparency. 

After the Board requested access last year to data on its historical costs and revenues, the Student Activities Office found physical financial records of UFB activity and digitized them for analysis, according to a statement published on UFB’s website accompanying the data release.

UFB derives the majority of its budget each year from the student activities fee charged to all undergraduates. The fee is currently $286 per year and generates approximately $1.9 million  for the Board’s budget, according to UFB’s website. Unspent funds from student groups and revenue surpluses from events such as Spring Weekend and Gala account for the rest of the roughly $2.2 million budget distributed to approximately 200 student groups each year.

UFB aims to operate with a $300,000 surplus, or “forward balance,” each year to maintain a buffer that ensures the Board has sufficient funds each year in the face of unpredictable fluctuations in returns from unspent funds and events, according to the statement. The buffer remains critical to UFB’s operations, as the Board’s spending exceeds the “guaranteed revenue” collected from the student activities fee each year.

But at the beginning of the 2019-20 academic year, UFB’s total surplus amounted to just over $1 million after accumulating for years without the knowledge of the Board due to its inability to access its total financial records, according to the statement. 

BearSync, the digital platform UFB has used to manage its funds since 2015, did not previously allow the Board to “easily” view a full overview of the funds available to them, according to the statement. As such, UFB made budget projections the past several years “based solely on the expected revenues and costs of a given year, without considering the accumulating surplus.” 

Half of the revenue generated by the student activities fee is deposited into UFB’s SAO account in the fall and the other half in the spring. Funding allocations to student groups are withdrawn in real time, making the Board’s precise total assets uncertain throughout the year, said UFB Chair Julian De Georgia ’20.

“You can imagine it as a bank account where you also have a credit card,” De Georgia said. “You know that at some point, (money for funding allocations) is going to come out of that bank account but you’re not really sure when, and the exact number you have in the bank account is not your actual spending power.”

Over the past five years, UFB’s total forward balance grew by around $675,000 due to “positive fluctuations” in the Board’s revenue, according to the statement. Returns from unspent funds varied from as “low as $197k to as high as $311k.”

One of the primary factors that contributed to the accumulation of surplus was significant ticket revenues from Spring Weekend, De Georgia said. According to the statement, Spring Weekend ticket prices are designed to cover the entire costs of production, assuming the event is held indoors. But when Spring Weekend can be held outdoors, an additional 2,500 tickets may be sold, thus generating an additional $60,000 to $70,000 in surplus revenues for UFB. Since 2009, Spring Weekend was only held indoors in 2011, enabling it to generate a profit from ticket sales in other years. 

Consistently conservative budgeting has also contributed significantly to the surplus, De Georgia said. Every year, UFB “had a certain amount of budget that we were planning on spending.” The Board “ended up spending about $100,000 less than that every year, and that money was not taken into account the following year,” he said. Still, according to the statement, UFB increased spending for student groups by about five percent annually for the past five years.

In order to prevent large surplus accumulations in the future, UFB plans to increase University oversight of their fund management practices. “We created a new advisor role with the (Associate) Vice President of Campus Life and the Director of Finance and Administration Katherine Tameo,” De Georgia said, noting that Tameo will help the Board more accurately analyze its funding accumulation and allocation moving forward.

De Georgia also emphasized the importance of regular UFB financial disclosures in the Board’s overall push for greater transparency. UFB published its first and most recent budget report in November 2018 outlining its finances for the 2018-19 academic year, The Herald previously reported

“Regardless of the challenges that BearSync may have posed in easily accessing the information, we should have taken the necessary steps to get the data,” the statement reads. “Understanding the overall trends of the fund should have been considered a core responsibility of the UFB leadership and we apologize for our failure to do so.”

“We are committed to publishing this data every year,” De Georgia said. The published data “will be great for public accountability for the Board and making sure that we’re continuing to receive feedback from the student body.”

In addition, BearSync will be replaced in the fall by a new online platform called “Presence,” following efforts by the Board beginning in fall 2019 to phase out the existing system. De Georgia said that Presence will enable UFB to see a fuller overview of its funding, eliminating the necessity to continue manually obtaining funding data from SAO.

UFB does not plan to institute any specific policy changes in response to the newly-discovered surplus. 

“Basically, what this allows us to do is have the capacity to consider larger policy changes when they come up,” De Georgia said, citing as an example the recent $26,400 overall funding increase for cultural and religious groups approved following a series of conversations with the student body in the fall. 

Future policy changes will be informed by “continued conversations with student groups and feedback from students on how we can better support the student body,” De Georgia said.

He added that the size of the surplus has made UFB unlikely to request an increase in the student activities fee for several years. “We will still be conservative with our spending when it comes to approving large increases, simply because the more quickly we spend money now, the more quickly we will have to request an increase in the student activities fee in the future,” he said. Between 2008 and 2019, the University increased the student activities fee eight times as a result of requests from UFB.

The statement also notes that even if the Board had always been aware of the size of the surplus, it still would not have approved student group budgets that had been denied — budget decisions are “always made according to policy, not the magnitude of UFB’s fund,” according to the statement.

Due to the University’s shift to online learning and subsequent cancellation of student group events as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Board anticipates receiving between $400,000 and $765,000 of unspent funds to add to its surplus. UFB is currently debating possible actions to take regarding this sum, while maintaining that aiding the student body is its priority, De Georgia said.

“We are always looking for ways to improve and better support the student body,” De Georgia said, characterizing UFB’s sentiment regarding the surplus as one of excitement. “Having this larger than expected surplus means that we are able to consider decisions that could potentially increase our costs over time without having to increase the student activities fee.”

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