Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Each year, the Student Budget Committee holds Spring Budgeting, two twelve-hour days in late March or early April that determine the vast majority of student group spending for the next year. This year, the committee opened the process to journalists, and also provided the Gazette with the complete outcomes of Spring Budgeting for the last ten years, providing the student body with an unprecedented look into just how our activities fee really gets distributed.
The entire process is lengthy and involves extensive communication between SBC and student groups. After setting the official date for Spring Budgeting (this year, it was March 21 and 28), student groups’ treasurers are responsible to draft up an appropriate budget and stop by at their scheduled time for SBC members to review the budget and approve how much money. At the end, SBC sends the budget to Student Council, which then approves them.
However, before Spring Budgeting even begins, SBC sets a reasonable benchmark for maximum allocation of money to all student groups in total. SBC set a $425,000 benchmark this year for the 93 student groups being funded. This estimate is based on both previous years’ spending and anticipated student activities fees. Once, the benchmark is set, SBC committee members go through Spring Budgeting without considering the total budget. Once all the student groups have proposed, SBC goes back to look at how the actual funding compares to the benchmark.
According to SBC Manager Simon Zhu ’11, SBC has exceeded this benchmark in the past two years. After Spring Budgeting ends, SBC members look at the proposals again to eliminate unnecessary requests to achieve the benchmark. With $16,000 over-allocated this year, SBC looked to cut funding from focused funding committees such as SAC, Olde Club, Drama Board, and FFS, because their funding figures were very large compared to other student groups and it was easier to cut funding from them rather than specific student groups’ relatively small budgets.
The Student Activities Fee funds SBC’s budget. For instance, SBC anticipates a total of $482,000 for the Student Activities budget for next year; they allocate approximately 90 percent of the budget for Spring Budgeting. The additional 10 percent, an estimated $56,000, goes into unrestricted funding for events throughout the year.
Each fall, SBC proposes the next year’s student activities fee. Next year, for the first time since the 1980’s, SBC has elected to lower the fee. The 2010-11 year’s fee will be lowered by ten dollars, from its current rate of $350 annually, in a symbolic gesture of lessening students’ financial burdens.
Not all of the $425,000 allocated at Spring Budgeting nor the $56,000 reserved for supplemental funding will be spent, however. The budget surplus has averaged around $100,000 over the past 5 years, according to Zhu. This rollover fund mostly goes into the Capital Replacement Fund, which is used to replace expensive equipment like the StuCo vans and SCCS’s projector. In the 2008-09 year, $29,966 was spent on capital replacement.
Extra money from the Capital Replacement Fund is generally invested in the College endowment. A fixed amount of proceeds from these investments is returned to SBC, generally around $3,000 to $4,000 a year. Last year, however, $30,000 of the rollover money was placed in the Fun Fund (which pays for one-time student events) and $60,000 was spent on Student Council initiatives based on a poll of students.
“The budget surplus,” said Zhu, “is far greater than it needs to be; it is certainly worth exploring different possibilities on how we could use that fund for better.”
Possible Reasons for Rejection
In deciding whether to fund student groups’ budget proposals, SBC committee members mainly look to precedents, philosophical conflicts, level of detail in the proposal, and previous years’ funding. Precedents established by previous SBC members are particularly important; a few notable ones include a limit on dinner budgets, no funding for airplane tickets, no retroactive funding, and no color copies in photocopying budgets.
Despite the importance of precedent, however, SBC committee members have the power to overturn precedent when there is a general consensus. Alan Zhao ’12, a SBC member, said, “It is like a chicken and egg situation: members are constrained by precedents, but individual members have the power to overturn these precedents at any time.” (Zhao is a former staff reporter for the Gazette.)
Three-year SBC member Romane Paul ’10 said, “The Committee is like a Supreme Court: some people interpret rules really hard, and other people very flexible. Rules don’t change, but people can change year to year; the committee will make one decision one year and another the next.”
While there are some precedents that are unlikely to change, there are some that elicit different opinions from the committee. Some of the most contentious issues are caps on dinner budgets, funding for intramural sports, and student paid positions.
Several SBC committee members were particularly uncomfortable with fully funding intramural sports proposals, because their requests for funding were large compared to other groups’. Between registration fees, transportation costs, and equipment costs, the large intramural sports teams take up a sizable portion of the activities fee. SBC has yet to establish a general rule for funding these sports groups; for the moment, it is reviewing these proposals on a case-by-case basis.
SBC members also disagreed this year about paying a student director for Sound Machine, a practice space in Olde Club for student bands with special equipment. The director would be in charge of making sure the space is clean and in working order. Some members felt that other groups, such as WRSN and SCCS, were not being paid to keep their space in working order, and so thought that Sound Machine should not be either. In the end, SBC reached a compromise where they would fund a Sound Machine director for half the semester in advance and then re-evaluate its worth.
Student group dinners were also a contentious issue: there is a precedent of a $600 cap on group dinners, but there are a number of potential exceptions to the rule. For instance, many student groups throw non-dinner events focused around food; it is also not clear if the $600 cap is the total cap or if student groups can get additional funding for other food events.
Kim St. Julian ’12, an SBC member, described the problem: “There was 900 dollars total for Passover events and 620 for SASS…what exactly is a dinner, and do we make concessions for religious events versus cultural?” (St. Julian was a staff reporter for the Gazette in Fall ’08.)
SBC continues to wrestle with this issue; it has yet to either clarify or revoke the existing precedent.
There may also be philosophical grounds to reject a proposal. For instance, Students for a Democratic Society holds an annual protest of the School of Americas; an SBC member felt uncomfortable that the Student Activities Fee is funding a specific political opinion.
SBC members said, however, that most student groups’ budget proposals that incite philosophical arguments will probably be funded, as long as they are well-planned and otherwise appropriate. Zhao elaborates, “I have two overarching guidelines: common sense and fairness. If your charter says you are supposed to do those types of activities, then it makes common sense. If we give you funding for this type of event, we have to give funding to every student group for that kind of event, if they ask for it.”
Zhu cited a lack of institutional memory as one of the largest flaws with SBC as it stands: half of the committee is replaced each semester. Members may not be aware of precedents until a proposal comes in conflict with one. SBC member Ben Hattem ’12 said, “We don’t do a generalized review of our precedents every semester. We operate by whenever something comes up.” He added that in his opinion, “we don’t allow ourselves a lot of flexibility with these precedents.” (Hattem is a columnist for the Gazette.)
Looking over the finalized student groups’ budgets, there are some noteworthy points to address.
By far the largest cut to a single group, percentage-wise, was for the Ping Pong Club. It requested $820 and received only $65, a 92% cut. This happened, however, because both Ping Pong Club and SAC requested a ping pong table to be placed in the Tarble game room, and so there was no reason to fund both requests.
Another major cut was to Earthlust, who got just 40% of the money they requested. Marjani Nairne ’12, Earthlust’s treasurer, said that this was because the group had not spent all the money in the current year’s budget. SBC wanted to see the group’s allocated money put to full use before allocating them more. As with any group that did not get full funding, SBC encourages them to apply for supplemental funding, if needed, throughout the next year.
The largest cut on the books in terms of dollar amounts was to the campus yearbook, Halcyon. SBC cut their usual $40,000 yearly budget in half, to $23,366. James Preimesberger ’11, one of the Halycon’s editors, said that the main reason for this drastic cut was concerns about their being put to good use: many of the yearbooks ordered do not end up being distributed to students.
The Halcyon is working on decreasing the number of books order to the exact number desired by the student body; the yearbook’s long-term contract, however, prevents a simple slash in the number of copies printed. Halycon pays the printing company in two main installments; SBC has agreed to fund the first installment, but wanted to wait on Halycon to negotiate a possibly-lower second installment feel by ordering fewer copies. Eventually, Halycon will request additional SBC funding next year for the second payment.
Lastly, there are some noticeable disparities in funding between similar student groups. For instance, the relative allocations to the a capella groups this year is shown at right.
In response to this, though, Zhu said, “The discrepancies are not necessarily indicative of a fault within the SBC and its funding criteria, but actually due to veritable discrepancies and differences within group activities.”
Hattem agreed, saying, “We approve or deny budgets as they come, so we can’t really equalize those differences directly…Groups seem to propose for what they think they need, so if one group needs or feels like it needs a certain amount, it’s hard to do a cross-comparison and claim that there’s something going wrong.”
For intramural sports teams with disparate funding, Zhu explains that it may depend on how active and successful each sport team is. As for a cappella groups, it depends on if the group decides to record a CD, which is an option that SBC would agree to fund, but only if the group requested it.
The total allocations for all student groups from 2000 to 2010 are presented in the spreadsheet below (direct link). (Records for 2007 and requested amounts in 2001 were not available.)
Nick Gettino and Henrietta Hakes contributed reporting.