NNMC receives ‘worst higher-ed institution audit in the state’

The state auditor has released the fiscal year 2016 audit for Northern New Mexico College, noting a total of 37 findings including probable theft of $200,000 by employee, a general lack of control over accounting and cash handling procedures, procurement violations and not having five regents as mandated by the state constitution. Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican

Correction Appended

The Northern New Mexico College Board of Regents, while laying blame on Gov. Susana Martinez and the state Legislature, has voted 3-1 to raise tuition 4.5 percent for incoming students enrolling in the fall semester or later.

Rosario “Chayo” Garcia, chairwoman of the board, told The New Mexican that she reluctantly voted for the increase during a meeting Monday night.

“Given the cuts, it was the only option,” Garcia said in reference to budget reductions for higher education by state government.

Northern President Rick Bailey agreed.

“No other issue was driving that decision,” Bailey said. “… The sole reason for the board’s decision to raise tuition is the massive cut the college and higher education has endured from the state.”

But a spokesman for Martinez called the tuition hike unnecessary.

“The governor only temporarily set aside higher education funding because she’s required to sign a balanced budget and the Legislature passed an unbalanced budget,” Michael Lonergan said in an email. “She has been crystal clear that she has every intention to, among other things, fully fund for our colleges and universities during the upcoming special session.”

For their part, Democrats who control the Legislature said the Republican governor initially agreed to a budget plan that included a menu of tax and fee increases to balance spending but then vetoed all of the options.

Though Martinez approved parts of the state budget presented to her by legislators following the 60-day session, she vetoed all funding for the Legislature itself and the state’s higher education system.

Lawmakers responded by suing her, saying those sweeping cuts violated the New Mexico Constitution. The state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case May 15.

Uncertainty about funding for the state’s colleges led Barbara Damron, secretary of the Higher Education Department, to grant schools an extension for submitting their individual budgets. The original deadline was May 1, but Damron has not yet set a new time frame. The state fiscal year begins July 1.

Garcia said Northern New Mexico College’s board initially considered a 7.5 percent tuition increase before dropping the idea and looking for other cost-saving measures, such as cutting back to a four-day school week and not filling positions left vacant by attrition.

Those possibilities are in a discussion stage, she said. Northern is also prepared to dip into its cash reserves of just over $1 million if need be, she said.

“We have nothing to go by right now,” Garcia said of state government’s funding plan.”We feel very uncertain.”

The board last raised tuition in 2013, with an increase of more than 13 percent to help deal with a $5 million budget shortfall.

But in 2015, the board at the Española-based campus froze tuition for students who enrolled for at least 12 credits. About 40 percent of the college’s roughly 1,050 students will not face a tuition increase because they were promised a price that would not change. In addition, students enrolling in the fall semester will not see a tuition increase.

“For the 60 percent of students who are not on the tuition lock, this is going to hurt,” Garcia said.

Only student regent Melissa DeHerrera voted against the tuition hike. She did not respond to a request for comment.

Tuition rates vary, but for New Mexico residents taking up to 11 credit hours a semester, the rate is about $125 per credit hour. For a full-time student, annual tuition is $4,560.

Northern might not be the only school to charge students more. The state’s two largest universities are still weighing their options.

A tuition increase is among the options for The University of New Mexico, spokeswoman Dianne Anderson said in an email Tuesday. She said the college’s budget leadership team, composed of administrators, faculty, staff and students, is developing various proposals to address a “likely funding shortfall … some of which could include a tuition increase.” But, she said, a final decision is on hold while the school awaits word from the state on funding.

Earlier this month, the New Mexico State University Board of Regents tabled a plan to raise tuition by 6 percent because of the uncertainty of the state funding process.

Minerva Baumann, spokeswoman for New Mexico State, said the university administration has decided to wait for clarity on state funding before it acts. “The university is preparing its budget based on the House Bill 2 appropriations, which amount to about a 1 percent reduction in funding,” she said.

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.

Correction: This story originally reported that the new tuition hike starts in January 2018. It actually begins with the fall 2017 semester.