MISSOULA — Upward of 75 top administrators and faculty from colleges as far as Havre and Glendive will converge today in Dillon for the Montana Board of Regents’ two-day meeting, where they will sleep in hotels and eat at restaurants on the taxpayers’ dime.
In the age of digital technology, and at time when shrinking state tax revenue is dominating the day’s agenda, is it possible to reduce travel expenses by using technology?
Gov. Brian Schweitzer seems to thinks so, as he’s encouraged state agencies for the past year to videoconference and teleconference whenever possible. The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the Department of Environmental Quality are two agencies that have saved thousands of dollars as a result.
In 2009, the Board of Regents met face to face seven times: once in Billings and Great Falls, twice in Bozeman and three times in Helena. They met via teleconference 10 times.
Each time they gather in person, around 75 people attend.
Five years ago, the regents regularly met six times a year for two days. To cut costs, the Montana University System decided to meet only quarterly, said Sheila Stearns, commissioner of higher education. In addition, the regents decided that the January and July meetings would last only one day, to reduce hotel and food expenses.
“That was a hard decision because they govern a lot of units,” Stearns said. “That’s like having 150 (state) lawmakers call in, but at some point they have to meet. It’s the same with regents.”
Each time the regents meet, the University of Montana sends 15 to 20 people from Missoula, said Executive Vice President Jim Foley. Each vice president determines who from his or her staff needs to attend based on the agenda, he said.
Montana State University is sending 13 people from its Bozeman campus to Dillon, said Tracy Ellig, MSU spokesman. Many times administrators have to make a presentation or offer expertise or answer questions from the regents, he said.
Faculty and staff attend to represent the views of their respective colleagues, unfiltered by administrators, Ellig said. Often the regents arrange to meet with these individuals.
“Those people don’t go just to sit in the audience to listen,” he said. “They go because there’s a meeting they are supposed to be at.”
Most of the time, the audience is full of the highest-paid people on Montana’s campuses.
The Commissioner of Higher Education office, which helps run the meeting, sends at least eight employees from Helena.
Calculating the total cost of a Board of Regents meeting is difficult. Representatives from some schools carpool. Some people stay at relatives’ homes. Some eat out while others take advantage of the free meals provided by the hosting school.
But if at least 50 people stay in a hotel two nights, that’s $7,000. The state rate for a hotel is $70 a night.
The state food per diem is $23 per person and covers breakfast, lunch and dinner. The state mileage reimbursement rate is 50 cents per mile.
The Office of Higher Education budgets nearly $50,000 a year to support expenses for the seven members on the Board of Regents. Much of that goes toward travel costs, said Frieda Houser, director of accounting and budget for the Office of Higher Education.
Food is often provided at regents meetings. Montana Western is providing two breakfasts, two lunches and a 5 p.m. reception. The cost is $1,875, paid using nonstate revenue, said Western’s Vice Chancellor Susan Briggs.
Those meals often helps cut back on per diem expenses, Stearns said.
Not visiting the many campuses that the regents oversee would be a failure in their responsibilities as a governing body to meet the faculty and students they represent, she said. Plus, chancellors and presidents at every university need to know one another to work effectively together, she said.
“There are just some things you can’t do over the phone,” Stearns said.
The regents have tried videoconferencing a couple of times in the past, but technology is evolving, Stearns said. With more sophisticated software, she said that’s something they wouldn’t rule out in the future.
Last year, the DNRC projected savings of up to $119,000 in employee travel time and expenses by using videoconferencing.
Also last year, the DEQ saved $7,080 by using teleconferencing to conduct four Board of Environmental Review meetings.