VSOs seek $2.5 million in special fees as ASSU looks to cut waste

April 7, 2013, 11:50 p.m.

Fifty-five voluntary student organizations (VSOs) will seek a total of $2,426,309.29 in special fees during this year’s ASSU elections as part of a process that has come under increased scrutiny in recent years.

Airline revenues
(DURAN ALVAREZ/The Stanford Daily)

The 50 undergraduate and five joint VSOs seeking special fees on April 11 and 12 have all put forward budgets exceeding the $6,000 limit granted by the general fees process. If the required line-by-line budget petition is approved by a majority of all voters and more than 15 percent of the relevant student body constituency, the amount sought after is divided evenly among that student body and added directly to tuition fees.

Among those 55 VSOs, six groups– two a cappella groups, two cultural groups, one publication and the First-Generation Low Income Partnership– did not receive funding last year.

The total amount of special fees sought has grown annually– rising from $119 per quarter per student last year to $140 per quarter per student this year– as more groups are voted in and budgets expand. Because special fees groups do not have to petition if they do not increase their budget by more than a set percentage from the previous year– 7.1 percent for the 2013 ballot– many expand marginally every year.

This year’s petitions are reflective of these consistent, incremental fee increases. Only eight groups have lowered their request by more than 2 percent but nearly half of this year’s proposals request increases of less than 7.1 percent.

“Special fees is a very important process… because it’s like a direct democracy,” said ASSU Executive candidate Billy Gallagher ’14. “[Unlike] general fees funding where it’s determined by the senate… the students directly vote for [special fees]. I think that’s a very positive thing. Even though students don’t necessarily take it as seriously or do as much homework as they should, I think the process is still really important.”

Gallagher is a Daily staffer.

The only group that requested more than a 10 percent increase was the Stanford Solar Car Project, a team of about 50 students that is requesting $98,500– a 78 percent increase from last year– to cover shipping and accommodation costs for the World Solar Challenge.

The Stanford Daily is requesting $98,730.13 from special fees, a seven percent increase from last year.

While he conceded that the opportunity to vote means that higher special fees are not necessarily unfair for students, Gallagher argued that unused special fees money means that students do not receive the value that VSOs promise in their special fee proposals. According to ASSU Assistant Financial Manager Stephen Trusheim ’13 M.S. ’14, groups end up not spending 25 to 30 percent of their special fees money every year.

Gallagher and his running mate, Dan Ashton ’14 proposed a Constitutional amendment at a March 12 Senate meeting that would have reformed the special fees process so that money was reclaimed by the general ASSU if unspent at the end of the year.

On the other hand, Elizabeth Patiño ’14, an ASSU Executive vice presidential candidate, voiced support for the current special fees system. Patiño also serves as a Student Activities and Leadership peer advisor.

“We really strongly support the reserve system,” she said. “It provides stability for [Stanford Student Enterprises, the financial arm of the ASSU]… We understand it’s a very important resource for them to have.”

Others, including Hunter Kodama ’14, the incoming financial officer for Dance Marathon, and Ian Chan ’14, financial officer of the Society for International Affairs at Stanford (SIAS) and former Undergraduate Senate treasurer, argued that fee reserves are often important for groups’ sustainability and programming.

Chan said that SIAS, which supports Stanford’s traveling Model United Nations team, keeps a large reserve account primarily as a buffer in case they don’t receive special fees, which happened in the 2011 general election.

Kodoma, who also serves as a peer advisor for Student Activities and Leadership, said that some groups need large reserves to pay honoraria expenses before ticket revenues come in, to pay for unexpected costs or to take advantage of extraordinary opportunities.

Najla Gomez ’14, ASSU Executive presidential candidate and Patiño’s running mate, said that reserves from special fees are needed for groups to fall back on.

“Student groups work hard to get special fees,” she said. “They most definitely should not be taken away from them.”


Scrutiny of special fees

After the Stanford Flipside successfully petitioned for a Segway in an explicit attempt to mock the special fees process in 2011, students and ASSU representatives expressed concern about the loopholes for unnecessary and exorbitant purchases in VSO budget requests.

“I don’t think we should try to over-legislate to fix these issues when every student has the ability to vote on them and each student already has a voice on whether money is being spent the right way or the wrong way,” Gallagher said. “All of this potential legislation might seem like a good idea, but it would come down to a lot of gray lines.”

The ASSU has struggled with interpreting special fees legislation before. The ASSU Constitution states that “student organizations that receive a Special Fee may not deprive any member of the Association of any or all of its services unless that member has obtained a refund of that organization’s fee.”

In a presentation for the ASSU Undergraduate Senate this fall, Trusheim challenged senators to think critically about this requirement in relation to groups that charge for their services and serve only a small proportion of the student body.

VSOs with barriers to membership entry can still petition for special fees.  Alternative Spring Break (ASB), a program in which roughly 3.5 percent of undergraduates participate, is requesting nearly $19 per student in special fees this year.

“All of our trips are open to all undergraduates. Everyone is welcome and encouraged to apply,” said Stephanie May ’14, ASB’s financial officer. “We hold events for the greater community… and we encourage all of our leaders and participants to come back and spread the word.

According to May, ASB’s request increased five percent this year to cover inflation and rising gas and travel costs but still will probably fall short of their actual expenses.


Rising refund rates

At an orientation seminar hosted for incoming ASSU officers this past fall, Trusheim encouraged senators to consider the disparity between the special fee sums levied on undergraduate and graduate students. Special fees this year cost each undergraduate $324 more than their graduate counterparts, totaling about $2 million for undergraduates and $300,000 for graduate students.

Next year, graduate students will not pay a fee for groups like The Stanford Daily, KZSU and other VSOs that offer performances, classes and events to both undergraduates and graduate students.

“You do have primarily undergraduates in a lot of these student groups, so that makes sense that it is split that way,” Gallagher said. “I think most undergraduates are reasonably happy with the way the special fees process works”

This year’s refund rates, however, tell a different story regarding student satisfaction. On April 6, Trusheim sent an email to the Undergraduate Senate informing them that, for many undergraduate VSOs, refund requests are approaching the 10 percent threshold at which refunds will be debited directly from a group’s reserve rather than the ASSU’s general buffer fund. According to Trusheim’s email, every VSO has received refund requests from at least 7.5 percent of the undergraduate population.

Paul Benigeri ’15 has even published a script that sets default special fee votes to “no” instead of “yes” to help students opt out of paying them.

Despite this, Kodama has never voted down or refunded a special fee.

“My personal stance is every group that gets some special fee, at least that I’ve seen so far, affects a large number of students on campus and adds to the overall undergraduate experience,” he explained. “A lot of them couldn’t exist without special fees.”

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