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Exec stipend draws criticism at Saint Mary’s

Liz Harter | Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Two weeks ago the Saint Mary’s Student Government Association (SGA) Executive Board voted to approve the 2008-2009 SGA budget during a meeting that left student body president Mickey Gruscinski feeling “disillusioned” and caused her to “strongly consider resignation.”

While Gruscinski has since told The Observer she has rethought her declaration that she would resign, she has publicly spoken out against the budget, which contains a $20,000 stipend that executive treasurer Mo Weaver said “the executives would receive for being executives” at a Board of Governance (BOG) meeting on Oct. 1.

The budget failed to pass with the two-thirds majority required for approval at an Oct. 8 meeting. The Executive Board had to then go back and revise the budget and that revised budget will be voted upon at tonight’s BOG meeting.

The Executive Board meeting, BOG meeting and subsequent discussions on the topic among members of BOG and the student body has caused some students to question whether or not the Executive Board should receive a stipend and one student serving on a board under one of the Executives resigned for “personal reasons and beliefs” dealing with the stipend.

Jasmine Saavedra, the secretary of the Student Diversity Board (SDB) announced her resignation from the position on Tuesday.

“I have become aware that a stipend is being awarded to the president of all the major boards with the justification that they will be too involved to have an on [or] off campus job,” Saavedra said. “In my opinion I don’t think that is justification at all, not to mention that paying a student for involvement on campus will soon take the meaning away of leadership.”

Saavedra said she doesn’t believe it is fair for the president of a group to receive a stipend when the entire board works together to organize programs.

“I am simply making sure that students recognize that this stipend will break the unity that [Saint Mary’s] so very much stands for and I want to have no involvement with that,” she said.

Students are also questioning the SGA Constitution, which does not specifically state that the Executive Board can set aside a stipend for themselves, but also does not state that they cannot.

Student funds

According to the SGA Constitution, the Executive Board, consisting of Gruscinski, Weaver, student body vice president Sarah Falvey, chief of staff Lauren Theiss, Residence Hall Association (RHA) president Maura Clougherty, Student Activities Board (SAB) coordinator Michele Peterson, SDB President Adriana Rodriguez and executive secretary Jenny Hoffman, who has previously written for The Observer, is the Budget Committee which has to “recognize, amend if necessary and approve the SGA budget and allocations of funds prepared by the executive treasurer.”

This budget lays out the allocation of funding for the $243,040 that SGA received from the $160 student government fee each full-time student is required to pay in her tuition.

Gruscinski sent an e-mail to the Executives, after their first meeting as a Budget Committee before they approved the budget in a 6-2 vote, explaining her position against the stipend. She showed The Observer this e-mail.

Gruscinski said she originally told the Executive Board that she would be fine with them allotting themselves a stipend “to appease everyone” but she would not accept the money.

However, after thinking about the issue, she wanted to “fight against receiving any sort of stipend from student activity fee money.”

“I believe it is unethical, no matter how much we would allocate to ourselves or how we try to justify it, to pay ourselves out of student money,” Gruscinski said.

When the budget was first presented to BOG many commissioners were opposed to the stipend for this same reason.

Health and wellness commissioner Pauline Kistka said her primary issue with the Executive Board taking a stipend is the fact that it will be coming out of these student fees.

“I don’t see how we can take money we get out of tuition and pay other students,” she said.

Class of 2009 president Jenny Antonelli added: “I have an issue with it coming out of student funds that can be used towards another activity on campus or some type of thing that could benefit the entire student body,” she said at the meeting.

Senior Katie Cahill said she doesn’t agree with the Executive Board taking a stipend out of student funds because that is not what she believes the student fees are supposed to be used for.

“I feel it’s wrong because if people knew what their parents’ hard-earned money and their student loans were going to, they wouldn’t pay it,” Cahill said. “It’s as simple as that. When something is called a student government fee, it implies that the money goes to the student government for student activities, not someone’s salary.”

Conflicts of interest

Many BOG members also said the fact that the Executive Board will receive a stipend from the budget they voted on is a conflict of interest.

Kistka said at the Oct. 1 BOG meeting that she doesn’t know how she feels about this fact.

“We were not informed of this [happening] last year,” she said. “My concern is that I know that six people – and I’m not saying you guys, I’m saying on boards prior – were given the option to receive money. If the decision was in their hands and they’re the ones going to receive the money, I don’t see the open-mindedness of the decision or an unbiased decision regarding it. I guess I kind of see a conflict in getting money in general.”

Class of 2009 vice president Taryn Pabst said she is surprised by the fact that the eight people receiving funds are the eight people who make the decisions on the budget.

“Considering the fact that I am the vice president of Senior board, I have the power to take funds from my class’s bank account, but that thought never crossed my mind,” she said. “I’m coming from a position where I could do this myself and I think they’re using their power for negative things.”

BOG public relations commissioner Katie Danko asked if it would be possible for Vice President of Student Affairs Karen Johnson, director of Student Involvement and BOG advisor Patrick Daniel, the director of Residence Life Slandie Dieujuste and College President Carol Ann Mooney to decide whether or not the Executives should receive a stipend.

“I don’t think it’s ethical for students to decide this,” Danko said.

Johnson, however, said the SGA Constitution states that the Executive Board is the Budget Committee and are responsible for the budget.

She said that when she came to Saint Mary’s three years ago she was shocked that they gave the Executive Board close to $250,000 to budget with no college oversight and that much trust was put into students; however, they have done a good job budgeting the money, at an Open Forum on the topic.

Johnson also told students that last year was not the first year the Executive Board took a stipend.

Last year’s Executive Board allotted themselves a $40,000 monetary stipend, and Executives serving SGA prior to that would often take a trip to Chicago where they would “stay at five-star hotels, eat at nice restaurants, see shows and go shopping,” Johnson said.

Johnson said she did not control what previous Executive Boards did with the money they were given to budget. Her only involvement was making sure they taxed themselves on the money they received and made sure the Executive Board did not get audited.

“I did require [last year’s Executives] to allow us to pay them so as to be in line with IRS issues,” she said. “I am not opposed to a stipend for Student Government Officers and was not last year.”

Past Boards

The 2007-2008 Executive Board, under the leadership of former student body president Kim Hodges, was the first Executive Board to receive the stipend.

Hodges said the entire team of Executives thought about allotting and accepting a stipend through thoroughly and the $40,000 was a residual amount left over in the budget after the SGA’s major programming had been completed for the academic year.

“The entire first semester was devoted to researching comparable institutions and their student government structures,” she said. “Most other institutions give students [serving student government] free room and board, stipends, tuition breaks and much more or a combination of those.”

Hodges said her board petitioned the idea of receiving free room and board directly to the College, but the idea was not approved due to internal budget restrictions at Saint Mary’s.

Dieujuste, however, said The Observer’s inquiries into the subject were the first she had heard about the subject.

“This is the first Karen Johnson and I are hearing about this petition,” she said. “There were no discussions about this last year.”

Hodges said her board decided to allot the stipend because SGA executive positions can be a full-time job and some of her board struggled financially.

“I, personally, had unmet need by the end of my first semester,” she said. “I had no idea how [that need] would be paid because I did not have time to have a campus job.”

She said the amount the Executives received “breaks down to be on par with the current work study wage compensation.”

She said receiving a stipend had been an agenda on previous SGA executive teams and her board just happened to be successful in seeing it through.

Susan McIlduff, 2006-2007 student body president, confirmed that her Executive Board did begin to look into some kind of monetary reward to alleviate financial struggles and to get more people involved in student government.

“We were adamantly opposed to receiving a reward from student funds,” she said. “We thought the administration should support the student government in some way.”

When she heard about Johnson’s remarks that Executive Boards prior to Hodges’ used student funds to go to Chicago to shop she was confused.

“[Our trip to Chicago] was not a stipend or reward but an SGA Executive Board retreat,” she said.

The eight Executives went to Chicago for the retreat and stayed at the Knickerbocker Hotel, which is five-stars, but she said the room they stayed in was donated by executive secretary Ashley Enright’s parents.

McIlduff also said they saw a dolphin show at the Shedd Aquarium and ate dinner at the Cheesecake Factory, but that was the extent of the group spending student government funds.

McIlduff said she thinks it is proper for the Executive Board to be constrained by checks and balances in the SGA Constitution.

“At least when I was president the Constitution said the Executive Board is the Budget Committee,” she said. “We gave a proposed budget to BOG and BOG voted to approve the budget.”

Constitutional discrepancies

The SGA Constitution states that “once approved by the Executive Board, [BOG] provide[s] final approval for the distribution of student government funds by approving the Executive Treasurer’s [SGA] budget.”

While BOG provided final approval to the budget approved by McIlduff’s Executive Board, it did not provide final approval to the budget under Hodges’ Executive Board.

“Both Patrick and I interpret [that section of the Constitution] to mean the Executive Board,” Johnson said.

Gruscinski, however, disagreed with that interpretation and presented the budget to BOG for approval on Oct. 8.

“There’s a discrepancy in the Constitution,” Falvey said at the meeting. “In some places it says the execs approve it as the budgeting committee and in some it says that Board of Governance has a say.”

Falvey said the Constitution Oversight Committee, which she chairs, will be trying to implement a system of checks and balances through an amendment to the Constitution throughout the year which will address the issue of a stipend.

In order to put a system of checks and balances in place, though, 10 percent of the student body would have to vote in approval of the amendment, Daniel said.

The revised budget will be presented at tonight’s BOG meeting and voted upon once again.

“I think we need to let the processes work,” Johnson said. “As I mentioned [last week at the Open Forum] this is the first time in my short history here that people are even interested. Now is a great time to revise the Constitution, institute policies and develop job descriptions for the officers.”

Ashley Charnley contributed to this report.