Friday's deal to temporarily reopen the federal government delayed the University of Nebraska from furloughing — or terminating — four dozen employees who work with low-income families across the state.

The agreement, announced between President Donald Trump and congressional leaders shortly after Friday's NU Board of Regents meeting wrapped up, will also keep the university from drawing upon its cash reserve to keep federal research projects moving forward uninterrupted.

University leaders will continue to monitor the "evolving situation," a spokeswoman said, particularly how the deal struck between congressional Republicans and Democrats affects NU's faculty, staff and students.

Earlier, as the stalemate in Washington entered its 36th day, NU President Hank Bounds described how the partial government shutdown's effects upon the university's operations were becoming increasingly grim.

"We are already feeling the impact," Bounds told regents, "and every day that goes by, the impact becomes more significant."

NU was preparing to give notice to as many as 48 Nebraska Extension educators and assistants that are paid through a federal education initiative tied to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP-Ed.

In addition to offering nutrition assistance, the food stamp program also provides education centered on school wellness, community gardens, healthy food pantries and child care to about 176,000 people across the state, said Mike Boehm, vice president of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

"Food insecurity doesn't just sit in isolation," Boehm said. "It's tied to lots of complex issues related to poverty."

Through quarterly disbursements, the federal government funds Nebraska Extension's SNAP-Ed activities, Boehm said. The university received its last round of federal funding in December, enough money to keep the program running through the end of March.

While the shutdown continued, however, administrators examined whether they would be able to keep the SNAP-Ed programs going once federal funding dried up.

The university spends $185,000 every month to pay the full salaries and benefits of 34 extension assistants, partial compensation to 14 extension educators and programming costs related to SNAP-Ed.

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A large majority of those employees work in the Lincoln and Omaha areas, Boehm said, while another concentration exists in the Tri-Cities region of Grand Island, Hastings and Kearney.

Weighing the options, administrators told the SNAP-Ed team a decision would be made whether to provide notice to up to 48 employees by the end of January.

NU is required to give 90 days of notice to employees before furloughing or eliminating their positions.

Also before Trump's announcement Friday, Bounds told regents that beginning in February, NU would also use its cash reserve to keep $6.5 million in federal research projects going until the government reopened.

The majority of that amount, roughly $5.5 million, is research funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation at UNL, Chancellor Ronnie Green said.

NU typically uses its cash reserve to fund research projects each month before seeking reimbursement from the federal government, Bounds explained, adding federal agencies have indicated they will fulfill the promises they made in funding the research once the government reopens.

Subcontractors on federal grant awards, which must be paid promptly under state law, would have also been paid from NU's cash funds had a deal not been struck Friday.

All that threatened to further diminish NU's cash on hand, which is one metric used to measure the institution's financial health.

As NU worked to close what's now a $55 million recurring budget gap created through a combination of lost state appropriations and increased operational costs, the university used its cash reserve as a bridge until cuts could be made.

NU has about 173 days of cash on hand, which is about 50 days fewer than its peer institutions, according to spokeswoman Melissa Lee.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.


Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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