CSO groups grouse over SGA disbursement

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CSO groups grouse over SGA disbursement

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As student enrollment continues to slide and the number of Chartered Student Organizations (CSOs) steadily climbs, the mileage of the Student Activity Fee has become less and less. This trend has led to frustration with the activity fee, as well as the funding process, which the Student Government Association steers.

The funds that SGA accrues from the activity fee, and then doles out to student organizations, have not been able to fund some of the essential costs for some of the organizations. Undergraduate students pay $55 per semester, and graduate students pay $30 per semester, with SGA gleaning only 20 percent from the graduate fee. For the 2016-17 school year, SGA had about $907,000 to allocate to 142 CSOs.

Nathan Dollinger, who served as the Vice President of Accounting for SLU Relay For Life and is the incoming Co-Chair for the CSO, expressed his frustration with the funds SGA allocated to his group for the 2016-17 school year. He said that SGA approved a budget of $8,400, but that amount will not be enough to support Relay’s spring fundraising event.

“As a fundraising event, we like to keep our costs low in order to maximize our fundraising efforts, so managing on a low budget is a must,” Dollinger said. “I was not exactly happy with the funding process this year. Our operating costs for our event next year will increase by $500. SGA was aware of this, but decided on reducing our budget by $500, which will cause issues going into the next year.”

Dollinger said that the group appealed to SGA twice to make up the $1,000 deficit, but to no avail.  He claimed that the funds that the group did not receive were deemed “not necessary for the success of the event” by SGA. “If we can’t cover the operating costs, we won’t have an event,” he added.

However, according to Ronald Clark, the Vice President of Finance, the funding and appeals process are both complicated and challenging to execute.

“A lot of groups are doing good work, but can’t be rewarded properly because the fee is decreasing, and the number of organizations is increasing,” said Clark. As the VP of Finance, Clark is aware of the challenges of the funding process, which comes with the difficult decisions on how much money each group is granted.

In order to streamline the process, as well as remove bias from it, Clark and the rest of the Finance Committee have created a set of rules, called funding directives, which clarify what kinds of events and costs will be backed by the activity fee and which will not. These directives are then passed by the Senate and sent out to each CSO. Then, a funding kickoff takes place so that the Finance Committee can communicate the directives, as well as which types of groups will likely receive more money for their budgets. For example, a CSO like Student Activities Board is going to receive a substantially larger sum than a group like the Italian Club because of the inherent nature of the group and how many students the group serves. This funding kickoff is mandatory for all CSOs. If a group does not send a representative to the meeting, the group will be ineligible to appeal their budget.

Once the directives are sent to the CSOs, the executive boards have the month of March to design a budget and submit requests to SGA via SLU Groups. Before approving a CSO’s budget, the finance committee meets with each CSO to talk about the proposed budget, so that the groups can explain how they would use the requested funds. Then, SGA decides, in line with the directives, how much to allocate to each student group.

Student organizations receive their approved budgets via SLU Groups. Item by item, the group can see if their request was completely, partially, or not fulfilled at all. If the committee decides to either partially fulfill or deny those funds for that particular cost item, they will provide an explanation in the notes section for that item. However, some student leaders found those explanations to be vague and nondescript.

“I personally found it very confusing,” said Caroline Kelly, who serves as the president for the African Students Association. “There’s no conversation about why decisions are made, just a few notes on the side column.” Often, these notes are classified as an “undue burden” or simply “non-fundable per directives.” However, Kelly’s group did not appeal for additional funds.

Other groups, however, like Relay For Life, appealed to SGA for more funds. This appeal process takes place at a closed Senate meeting, where The CSOs had to present to SGA and explain their need for the money. The Finance Committee also provided a rationale for their original allocation of funding. Senators could ask questions to both parties to inform their voting. Student groups leave these sessions knowing whether they receive the funding or not. However, the groups have one more chance to appeal at the following SGA meeting.

Mike Degnan, Vice President of Student Organizations, said that historically, the majority of CSOs do not appeal for additional funding. However, this year, the appeals process was particularly tension-filled.

Originally, 32 groups appealed for a collective amount of $122,000. However, SGA only set aside $8,000 to fund appeals. Degnan said that if SGA exceeded that amount for appeals, every CSO across the board would have a percent cut from their budget to make up the difference.

“That’s the challenge with appeals, this year especially,” said Degnan. “It’s a difficult process. You’re right in front of Senate as they’re talking about the group, and it’s hard, I think, to separate personal from professional.”

For some CSOs, like the Knights of Columbus, the appeals process was particularly stressful.

“It was painful,” said Connor Renz, the president of the Knights of Columbus group at SLU. Renz said that the group went through two rounds of appeals hoping to acquire the typical funding the group receives, which totals $1,000. However, this year, the CSO received around $300. He attributed this to the types of questions his group received from senators during the appeals.

“In our appeal, the senate had a hard time grasping our mission and activities. One of the senators even suggested that we were ‘not inclusive’ because we were a ‘Catholic male CSO,’” said Renz.

In these situations, Senator Tommy English believes that the Senate and Finance Committee made the right choice in denying these funds. He does not believe that groups like the Knights of Columbus were ever meant to receive the benefits of the fee.

“The Student Activity Fee was originally intended for what it is named: student activities. It is supposed to fund organizations that are open to all students and promote student activities and events,” said English. “However, over time, several types of organizations have come to be funded by the students’ activity fee and they don’t promote activities that are easily accessible by all students, and they are often extremely expensive.”

For example, the fee currently funds honors organizations and club sport teams. These CSOs benefit a few students, in contrast to groups like Billikens After Dark, or Great Issues Committee, which both host events open to all students.

For many student leaders, the simple answer to this complex issue is to raise the Student Activity Fee, which would create a bigger pool of money to cull from.

“Raising the Student Activity Fee is a must. Based on the number of CSOs, we can not just function as needed with the student fee where it is [now],” said Dollinger.

English agreed that raising the activity fee could be a quick fix for some of the issues that both the SGA and CSOs face in this process, but would not be the answer for long-term change.

“It [raising the fee] would alleviate some of the difficulties faced by SGA and would appease some student’s desires, but it will not fix the systemic issues currently being faced,” English said. “We need to decrease the number of CSOs we have, so that the best and most effective CSOs can receive all the funds they need.” English proposed finding different sources to fund clubs like honor societies and sports teams, so that their backing did not come from the activity fee.

Regardless of the outcome of raising the fee, Degnan said that such an action would have to be student-driven. It could not simply come from the Senate.

“If we wanted an increase in the fee, we would have to put the exact amount that we would want it to be and it would have to pass on that ballot. Then what it comes down to is would students agree with it,” Degnan said. Students would be able to vote on this referendum during normal SGA elections. Degnan said the tricky part of raising the fee would be coming to a definite number that both CSOs and students have to agree on. Compared to other universities, Degnan said SLU’s Student Activity Fee is modest.

As it stands now, both the budgets and the appeals process are kept confidential by SGA. Students are not allowed access to how much each CSO gets or where the Student Activity Fee is going. This fact has made some CSO leaders uneasy.

“CSO budgets are funded directly from the Student Activity Fee,” said Dollinger. He continued saying that SGA cast out a utilitarian rationale for their allocation of the funds, which Dollinger thought required SGA to be transparent in their operations. “For the reason that the allocation of money is determined by the perceived potential benefit to the SLU population, I believe that we should know where that money is going toward.”

In his response to this type of assertion, Degnan said he could see both sides. He thought that it could be beneficial to release the information regarding the budgets, but that it could also have repercussions regarding CSO privacy.

“On the one hand, it could be beneficial for everyone to see exactly where it goes,” Degnan said. “On the other hand, at the organization level, you don’t want everyone to know your business…you have organizations that have similar purposes or do similar events and someone might have gotten more than the other. Then it’s ‘Why did they get this and we didn’t?’ ”

Degnan said that a consequence of releasing this information could be that students would be upset at other students, which is not the intention. He thought that SGA acted as transparently as possible, but that there was room to improve and grow in the process.