The Kansas Board of Regents will ask Gov. Laura Kelly to consider restoring funding for the state’s four-year universities back to the level at which the state Legislature had set funding before Kelly made pandemic-related cuts.


The Regents voted Thursday afternoon to seek $643.6 million for the state’s four-year universities during the 2021-2022 school year as part of the Regents’ unified appropriations request for fiscal year 2022. State legislators in March had approved that much funding for the universities in the 2020-2021 school year, but in June, Kelly ordered the universities to cut their budgets by $35.2 million, bringing their cumulative budgets down to $608.4 million.


The board held a long discussion on the best method to approach the yearly request, with some fearing that by asking for too much, the Regents would risk appearing "tone-deaf" to the state’s overall revenue struggles. Others worried that by asking to keep the funding level at $608.4 million another year, the Legislature wouldn’t understand the dire financial needs of the universities and treat that figure as a ceiling, with further cuts possible during the budgeting process.


But the Regents ultimately opted to go with the higher request amount, particularly after university presidents said that while the budget hit this year is massive but manageable, two years of flat funding at that level would be "devastating."


"I understand we have a state challenge, and I understand we probably won’t get fully funded," said University of Kansas Chancellor Doug Girod, "but to start at the floor as your ceiling I think is devastating to us, in my opinion."


With the higher budget ask, the Regents said the challenge will be convincing not only Kelly, but state legislators, that the universities are worth it. In recent years, the Regents have proposed hefty increases for higher education in the state budget but typically received fractions of those requests.


Regent Allen Schmidt, of Hays, said the Regents and the universities must do a better job of articulating why the Legislature should fund their requests.


"We have a hell of a story to tell in how our universities have stepped up," he said. "If we listen to all of them today, the number of students at the universities has not dropped off like we anticipated in the beginning. The universities are helping out the communities with this whole COVID thing, and it’s quite a story."


On the other hand, Regent Mark Hutton, of Andover, said that at the risk of being misunderstood as not supporting higher education, he couldn’t bring himself to vote for the increased funding because he was worried it would send the wrong message.


"This isn’t a fiscal year where you’re going to be able to eat around the pie," he said. "You’re going to have cut a piece of the pie out, and again, that’s just what is going to happen. They’re going to force it on us. They’ve been doing it year after year — we keep asking for more money, and they keep giving us less. I’m sure at some point in time, they’re wondering if we’re going to get the message."


As part of the appropriations request, the Regents also seek flat funding for two-year institutions at $170.5 million, $12.4 million for Washburn University, a continuation of the $10.5 million in yearly funding from the State’s Engineering Initiative and state commitments to creating a dedicated $13.5 million fund for deferred maintenance on the state’s university and college buildings in fiscal year 2023.


The Regents’ appropriations request also advocates for enacting legislation that would allow public school districts to use state aid to fund tuition for students taking college classes in high school.