This story appeared first in the Sunday edition of the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper.

UW-Oshkosh leaders argue they could save $20,000 a year by buying cheaper trash bags.

UW-Madison officials say they could complete a $400,000 remodeling job in Sterling Hall in four months, rather than a year-and-a-half. And the UW-Parkside chancellor contends she would have an extra $50,000 each year in tuition revenue.

These are examples offered by University of Wisconsin System leaders of ways they could save money and time — if only they had more freedom from state bureaucracy.

Faced with millions in budget cuts, most everyone agrees that Wisconsin’s public universities should gain more control over their operations. But the question is: How much control? And to whom should it be given?

Two dueling proposals are on the table.

Under the proposal UW-Madison officials want — which Gov. Scott Walker included in his budget — the flagship campus would split from the UW System and get public authority status. UW-Madison would have its own 21-member board of trustees with the power to set tuition and create policies to govern the university.

Other UW System chancellors and the UW Board of Regents cry foul.

They want the UW System to stay together, with the Regents gaining more freedom from state statutes and delegating it to the campuses.

At the core is a question of how much local control lawmakers are willing to cede — and whether it’s to the umbrella entity of UW System, or individual campuses like UW-Madison.

Following are the six key areas where university leaders want more autonomy.

1. Budgeting

Currently: The UW System gets funding earmarked for specific purposes. University leaders say they can’t move money around to address their needs.

Example: UW-Oshkosh gets an appropriation of about $4 million to spend each year on heating, cooling and electricity. Through energy savings, it didn’t spend about $850,000 of that last year. Currently, the university has to give savings back to the state. But Tom Sonnleitner, UW-Oshkosh vice chancellor for administrative services, said he’d like to be able to put it toward other uses on campus.

UW System solution: The Regents would get a lump sum, called a “block grant.” Then, the board would give each chancellor a block grant to use at his or her discretion.

UW-Madison solution: UW-Madison’s new board of trustees would get a block grant and discretion on how to use it.

2. Money control

Currently: The state controls most of the UW System’s money, including interest earned on some kinds of revenue.

Example: The state took $3.5 million from UW-La Crosse in 2009 to spend on financial aid. UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow said the money came from housing fees that UW-La Crosse students paid, which the campus was planning to use for a down payment on a new dorm. “We would prefer that the money our students give us, that we would manage it and put it back into the university,” Gow said.

UW System solution: The Regents would control earnings on all program revenue, such as tuition, housing and parking fees.

UW-Madison solution: Non-state money would no longer be considered “state funds.” UW-Madison leaders say this means the state could no longer take it and campus leaders could invest it themselves.

3. Personnel

Currently: Titles, pay ranges, pay plans and other decisions are made by the Office of State Employment Relations for university employees along with all other state employees. University leaders say they have unique needs.

Example: A staff member in UW-Madison’s Wisconsin Center for Education Research reached the state-mandated salary cap for her job title with 20 years left to work, said Adam Gamoran, director of the center. He found a way to give her a raise, but it took about 100 hours of work, he said.

UW System solution: The Regents would be in charge of setting pay plans, giving raises and determining job classifications for all staff.

UW-Madison solution: UW-Madison would become the employer. The UW-Madison board would develop and implement its own personnel system.

4. Facilities

Currently: UW System campuses must get building approvals from the UW Board of Regents and state agencies in a process that can take two to four years. The state manages the design and construction of buildings.

Example: Three labs in UW-Madison’s $121 million microbial sciences building couldn’t be occupied for more than a year because they were not designed to meet accreditation standards, said Alan Fish, associate vice chancellor for facilities. UW-Madison had to spend an extra $1 million out of its maintenance budget to resolve the problems.

UW System solution: If no state money is used, the Regents would have control over the projects and the state would waive a 4 percent fee. The Regents would delegate control to UW-Madison on its projects.

UW-Madison solution: UW-Madison would have control over projects when no state money is used.

5. Tuition

Currently: The governor and state Legislature can put limits on tuition. Walker set tuition increases at 5.5 percent in his proposed two-year budget.

Example: When UW-La Crosse wanted to raise tuition by $1,000 in 2007 to hire more faculty and support staff, it took a yearlong process, which included a student referendum. 

UW System solution: The Regents would have sole authority for tuition.

UW-Madison solution: The board of trustees would set tuition only for UW-Madison.

6. Purchasing

Currently: UW System campuses must follow state purchasing rules, which often means taking part in state contracts.

Example: UW-Oshkosh spends $93,000 a year on trash can liners through a state contract. The university found it could save $20,000 by purchasing outside of the state contract. Under the current system, one contract provides a range of products — some with the best price, some not.

UW System solution: The Department of Administration (DOA) still would have primary oversight over procurement, but the Regents would have the authority to enter into contracts for specialized, university-related materials.

UW-Madison solution: The DOA could delegate university related purchases to the UW-Madison board.

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