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Confusion reigns over budgeting process and regulations for student organizations

Owen Barbato
The Student Government Association’s rollover budget was given to Weekend.

New regulations and budgetary changes for student programming have left many student organizations uncertain about how much they can spend and how they can spend it.

SGA brings changes to budgeting process

The Student Government Association’s (SGA) budget comes from the student activity fee, which was set at $520 for each student for the 2023-24 school year. On Sept. 8, the College estimated that the total collected this year is $356,146. One-third of this is allocated to the Student Publications and Radio Committee, and the remainder, currently estimated around $237,430, is available to SGA.

Hayden Davis `25, SGA co-concerts chair, indicated that the current Cabinet wants the process to be straightforward and open. He said, “One of our goals this year as a Cabinet is making sure that the student body feels like we’re communicating with them and we’re transparent in a way that potentially hasn’t been done in previous years.”

Requests to SGA have already exceeded the amount of money currently available. Registered student organizations who have already submitted budgets originally requested $296,385, but SGA has only $145,000 to allocate.

Current SGA members established a temporary financial board this year in order to streamline the process for student groups to secure funding approval. Davis and Alyson Won `25, SGA vice president of student affairs, both sit on this board. Davis said, “We know that student orgs. need access to their budgets as soon as possible.”

It’s not easy to tell people sorry, we only have this much money, but we want to help as best as we can and listen to the needs of the students.

— Aly Won, SGA vice president of student affairs

At the end of last school year, SGA asked student organizations to submit an annual budget request, which Davis, Won and Maure Smith-Benanti, assistant vice president of student affairs and dean for inclusive initiatives, described as a large structural change. In the past, SGA distributed funding to student organizations on a “first-come-first-serve basis,” said Smith-Benanti. 

Smith-Benanti said, “this is the first time SGA has tried to tackle this, so I think there’s bound to be bumps along the way, and we don’t have a history to know what student orgs. have spent in the past.”

At the start of this school year, Won said that SGA treasurer Nam Do `25 had to “make sense of this whole folder full of incomplete spreadsheets” in order to discern how much money student organizations had requested for the school year. 

“The amount that was requested far surpassed what we allocated to us,” said Davis. “We either need more money or we need to cut.” 

SGA presented student organizations with two options –– either SGA would have to make budget cuts, or each organization could revise and resubmit their individual budgets. Student org. representatives present at the Sept. 1 meeting overwhelmingly voted to revise and resubmit their own budgets. 

Won said, “It’s not easy to tell people sorry, we only have this much money, but we want to help as best as we can and listen to the needs of the students.”

New rules also complicate budgeting process

On Sept. 1, SGA and Student Involvement met with representatives from student organizations to review potential budget cuts and to outline new regulations for how money can be spent. SGA will also no longer fund any events that take place off campus, conference registration or travel expenses, said Smith-Benanti.

The SGA treasurer and temporary financial board decided that student groups could no longer use their funds for food in regular meetings. There are also new rules limiting how much organizations can spend on food for events. For events with fewer than 100 attendees, SGA will supply no more than $1000. For events with more than 100 attendees, student organizations will be limited to no more than $3000 for ingredients or no more than $7000 spent on outside restaurants. Also, if members of an organization would like to cook or serve food, they now must complete ServSafe training to ensure safe handling. 

The difference here is that we just found out that some orgs. were closing their meetings and that can actually result in the College overall losing access to federal financial aid.

— Maure Smith-Benanti, assistant vice president of student affairs and dean for inclusive initiatives

Additional measures were taken, said Smith-Benanti, to make sure that Grinnell remained compliant with Title VI, Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Equal Access Act of 1994.

Smith-Benanti explained, “The difference here is that we just found out that some orgs. were closing their meetings and that can actually result in the College overall losing access to federal financial aid.” 

SGA acknowledged that this process is a work in progress and they want to be fair to all organizations. “We’re exploring all sorts of ways to get student orgs. access to the money they need to be as successful as they can,” said Davis.

Both Davis and Won said that SGA is currently working to see if they can reallocate any other SGA funds to better support student orgs. and have been meeting with the offices of Intercultural Affairs and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in an attempt to find more funding.

“At this time we can’t guarantee exactly how much will be allocated,” said Won. “Right now we’re trying and we want to make sure that we’re also being good stewards of the budget that we’ve been given.”

New rules create unwelcome changes for some student organizations

In response to these changes, some student organizations have expressed both confusion with what sorts of budget cuts they need to make and frustration that the new spending regulations will change their traditions. 

Kripa Bansal `24, president of the South Asian Student Organization (SASO), said, “I don’t really know what they want us to cut down, just that we have to cut down.” Ahmad Ayyeh `25,  co-president and treasurer for the Muslim Student Association (MSA), also expressed uncertainty about programming. “From the looks of it, I don’t know when we’ll start. It’s been really unclear.”

Budhil Thijm `25, a cabinet member and treasurer for the Asian American Association, said that communication between Multicultural Leadership Councils (MLC) and administration “hasn’t been great.” He and other members of MLC groups have met to discuss how to adjust to the new situation, and he encouraged other multicultural student organizations to continue interacting, collaborating and advocating for their interests. 

In this case, if we have to do it on campus then the tradition does not stay the same.

— Kripa Bansal, president of the South Asian Student Organization

After learning that he would have to make significant cuts to the MSA budget, Ayyeh met with Ashley Adams, associate director of student involvement, to inquire what sacrifices the organization would have to make. “We had to cut down more than two thirds of what we originally had,” Ayyeh said. 

Because SGA will no longer fund travel, Ayyeh said that MSA will not be able to go to Chicago for the annual celebration of Eid al-Fitr, the conclusion of the month of Ramadan, when all able-bodied Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. “I know it really meant a lot to those who went last year,” Ayyeh said. “It felt like a true holiday.”  

Prevented by the new rules from funding a similar trip this year, Ayyeh said, really hurts. “It just feels like a slap in the face for us to be told no to what we believe is a huge religious tradition for us.” Ayyeh said he thinks that student organizations should retain more control over their own activities. “We should have autonomy in how we choose to plan events,” Ayyeh said. “To limit certain types of events … it’s not fair, it’s not equitable.” 

Bansal agreed that the lack of funding for off-campus events will disrupt SASO’s traditions as well. The group often holds “Chai time” events, which “is a cultur[al tradition] in which you invite people into your house,” said Bansal. “In this case, if we have to do it on campus then the tradition does not stay the same.”

In addition to the confusion about cuts and travel restrictions, the role and cost of food has also become an issue. Davis is aware that “food is a very important part of a lot of organizations and it’s how they build community, and we want to make sure that we can provide that for them.” But the new rules may have a big impact for some groups.

Bansal said she worries that her organization may not be able to keep up with campus expectations. “I was really excited before all this happened, but now I’m a bit stressed,” she said.  “I do have a big responsibility of making sure these events follow through because the whole campus, especially the South Asian community, expects these events to happen.” For example, every year SASO hosts a campus-wide Diwali celebration, but Bansal said “if we want to do Diwali properly, we cannot do as many other events.” Past celebrations have included full meals for more than 100 people. 

Making us as available as possible is the goal. We’re never going to just shut anyone down.

— Hayden Davis, SGA co-concerts chair

Smith-Benanti said that SGA is sympathetic to student org. concerns, but noted that budgetary and legal requirements mean making some difficult choices. “SGA is working really hard to follow state and federal laws as well as college policy and they’re trying to do it in a way that represents students the best they can and ethical spending of the student activity fee,” she said.

“I think the thing that is new is that SGA has not ever had to really implement hard and fast rules,” Smith-Benanti continued. “When you have to say no to some, that can be a difficult thing to communicate, and there are a bunch of misunderstandings, I think.”

Won also encouraged student organizations with any questions or concerns about the budget requests to reach out to their SGA representatives. “I think that especially these past few weeks we’ve shown that we are working really hard to give students our all,” said Won.

“Making us as available as possible is the goal. We’re never going to just shut anyone down,” said Davis. 

Unspent student activity funds transferred to Weekend programming board

Prior to this year, SGA had also amassed over $500,000 in rollover fees. “There’s a difference between a rainy day fund and a rollover,” said Hayden Davis `25, SGA co-concerts chair and member of the temporary financial board. “It’s completely valid for an organization to have a small amount of cash set aside in case of emergencies, but this was not that. This was $500,000.”

Davis continued, “Students who paid their activity fee were not getting the full value out of that fee because it wasn’t being used and kept building up over time.”

Smith-Benanti is also serving another year as the temporary advisor to SGA. She said that last year, “The College decided that it was not an ethical use of the student activity fee to not spend it while students who paid into it are on campus.” 

Students who paid their activity fee were not getting the full value out of that fee because it wasn’t being used and kept building up over time.

— Hayden Davis, SGA co-concerts chair

Therefore, in December of 2022, SGA was presented a decision: “Should the College reabsorb that money or do you want to reallocate it to a programming board?” said Smith-Benanti. 

The S&B was only able to confirm, through Davis, the presence of last year’s SGA president Loyal Terry `23 and treasurer Sarah Toay `23 at this meeting. 

Davis said, “While neither option was ideal from an SGA perspective, the previous year’s Cabinet chose to fund the programming board because if we had just given it back to the College, there was no guarantee that it would be used for student initiatives on campus.”

Benanti-Smith said that SGA’s decision “made sense and was aligned with keeping it [the rollover] to student decision.” She continued, “Obviously, giving it to a programming board will increase the availability of all-campus events and activities coordinated by Weekend.”

While SGA allocates money to various student organizations and clubs on campus, Weekend is a group of student employees with a staff supervisor, Adams, that create all-campus events. 

Won, who served as a Weekend coordinator last year, said that she and other Weekend employees had no part in making this decision. 

Adams did not respond to multiple interview requests. In addition, a Weekend employee indicated that none of the Weekend student workers would be willing to comment. 

The reallocation of student activity funds to Weekend may have a disproportionate impact on some students. For example, MSA’s Ayyeh noted that, as a devout Muslim, he prefers to avoid events where people may have used substances. “It doesn’t feel fair because like 80% of the events that Grinnell holds, I cannot attend,” Ayyeh said. “It’s like having to choose between being a devout Muslim and enjoying the events at Grinnell, and we wanted to do something about that by throwing events that would be MSA-appropriate.”

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About the Contributors
Allison Moore
Allison Moore, Staff Writer
Allison is a fourth-year gender, women's, and sexuality studies major from Granville, Ohio. In her spare time, she can be found crafting, cooking, and cuddling with her kitten, Koda. If you think her mini crossword is too hard, then too bad.
Owen Barbato
Owen Barbato, Staff Photographer
Owen is a third-year psychology and political science major from South Pasadena, California. When he's not photographing for the paper, Owen enjoys taking nighttime and landscape photos. In his free time, Owen can be found trying to learn guitar and overanalyzing music.
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