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MnSCU pays out nearly $290K in bonuses for brass

MINNEAPOLIS -- The top staff at the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system has been paid $287,500 in performance bonuses this month, prompting criticism from union members at a time of layoffs and attracting the attention of a powerful critic in the Legislature.

"It's difficult to see any kind of bonus go out right now," said Karen Foreman, chairwoman of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees committee that represents about 3,750 union members in the system. "People are very appalled by this."

According to a list provided to The Associated Press by the system, 35 of the system's top employees received the bonuses.

Those employees included college and university presidents, vice chancellors and system Chancellor James McCormick.

McCormick received the largest bonus, $32,500, which was awarded during a trustees meeting in July. His base salary of $360,000 was not increased. The remainder of the bonuses became public when they were paid out last week.

The other top earners were Vice Chancellor for Finance Laura King, Central Lakes College President Larry Lundblad and Winona State University President Judith Ramaley. All received $12,000. Ridgewater College President Douglas Allen was paid $9,000.

A system spokeswoman said the executives could earn between $3,000 to $15,000 for achieving certain goals. For presidents, those goals could include closing the racial achievement gap, getting more students into math and science programs, or developing more training for area businesses.

While no one in the program below McCormick got the top amount, two did earn the $3,000 minimum. With McCormick's bonus excluded, the average payout was $7,500. The most common bonus amount was $6,000.

AFSCME leaders protested the performance bonus program at the MnSCU Board of Trustees meeting last week, before the amounts and the program's scope were commonly known.

AFSCME took no pay raises in its current two-year contract, which started this summer. Foreman said it was done in the spirit of "shared sacrifice."

"Giving the bonuses to the top level of managers when you're laying off staff who answer the phone, set up the laboratories and help students and parents -- that isn't shared sacrifice," she said.

AFSCME said at least 60 union members have been recently let go. When the Board of Trustees approved its annual budget in June, it called for about 550 system jobs to be left open or eliminated due to declines in funding.

System spokeswoman Melinda Voss noted that performance pay for the MnSCU executives was in their 2008 contracts. Those deals didn't include a base pay increase, but instead made the executives eligible for the bonuses.

She noted that the pay the executives received this month was compensation for work done during the fiscal year that ran from July 1, 2008, to June 30, 2009. During that period, she said, the system's unions received raises of 3 percent to 8.8 percent.

The system trustees remain committed to performance pay, she said, because it provides more accountability to the system's top leaders. McCormick sets the bonuses based on his review of the executive's performance.

When AFSCME leaders told trustees at last week's meeting that union members were offended by the program, Trustee James Van Houten said it seemed equitable to him.

"The executives have waited a whole year for the pay," he said. "My feeling is that everyone has been treated fairly."

Rep. Tom Rukavina, chairman of the higher education committee, said many people on system campuses that he's toured recently disagree. "It's the talk of the town," he said. "People aren't happy, from the students on up."

The Virginia Democrat and gubernatorial candidate said paying the bonuses when campus budgets are being squeezed and enrollment is soaring is "plain stupid" and it's hurting morale.

"Everyone else took a pay freeze," he said. "To do this and give bonuses ... just smacks of arrogance."

Rukavina said when the Legislature meets next he'll try to put some MnSCU employees on the board to add some "common sense."

At least three MnSCU presidents have either donated their bonuses to campus projects or publicly pledged to do so. Winona State spokeswoman Andrea Mikkelsen said Ramaley has promised her $12,000 payout to the university's fundraising campaign for a new wellness center.

At Minnesota State University, Moorhead, President Edna Szymanski received a $9,000 bonus. Campus spokesman Doug Hamilton said about a third of that went to taxes and Szymanski split the rest between a scholarship program and funds for a new campus wellness center.

Lundblad, of Central Lakes College, told the Brainerd Dispatch he plans to put the $12,000 he received back into programs for students and staff, including replenishing a fund to help students with emergency needs.

About 250,000 students earn college credits in the system's 32 colleges and universities each year