Lunch on Campus

A group of Montana State students sit outside Rendezvous Dining Pavilion and have lunch while keeping their distance Monday.

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The Montana University System is offering refunds to students who have moved out of the dormitories and cancelled meal plans due to the coronavirus pandemic, a decision that could cost the Bozeman campus up to $7 million.

Each Montana State University student who has already fully paid for their room and board could qualify for a refund between $1,600 and $2,000, Tracy Ellig, university vice president for communications, reported Monday.

Roughly 3,650 MSU students could qualify for refunds, and the maximum potential cost to the campus would be $7 million, he said, based on information from campus finance and auxiliary services officials.

Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian announced Friday in a memo to campus leaders that he was authorizing pro-rated refunds for dorm and dining hall students.

“I place the health and safety of our students as my top priority,” Christian wrote.

MSU President Waded Cruzado included the information in her email Friday to 15,500 spring semester students and staff.

Student housing and dining are big business on campuses. At MSU the student housing and dining budget totaled $46 million in fiscal year 2019 and was predicted to grow to $50 million this school year, according to September 2019 Board of Regents documents.

Compensation and benefits to dorm and dining employees were predicted to cost $18 million this year. Ellig said there has been no discussion of laying off any employees.

“We’re taking steps to keep people employed,” he said.

In the last two weeks the University System has moved all classes from in-person to online instruction. Last week officials asked students on spring break not to return to their campuses or dorm rooms but instead to go home, all in an effort to prevent spread of the virus.

Students will have to fill out cancellation forms to be eligible for refunds, which would cover the period from Monday through the end of the spring semester. Forms will be available starting Wednesday, the commissioner wrote. He asked students to allow until April 15 to receive reimbursements.

For MSU’s Bozeman campus, that means students could be reimbursed for seven weeks, or nearly half the semester.

Room and board for the entire year costs MSU students $10,300, according to the university’s website. MSU has reported in the past that 24% of students live in residence halls.

The potential loss of millions of dollars in dorm and dining hall fees wouldn’t affect the main part of MSU’s budget that pays for professors’ salaries and the general costs of running the campus. Dorm and dining hall revenues and expenses are instead kept in a separate budget called auxiliaries, which includes the health center, Strand Union Building and other enterprises that are run like businesses.

Revenues from dorms and dining halls are not only important to running those services, but are also an important revenue stream that’s pledged to reassure investors in the university’s bond debts for building construction that the bonds will be repaid. Ellig said MSU can make all those payments.

In her message Friday to the MSU community, Cruzado reminded students that Gov. Steve Bullock has recommended that all travelers returning to Montana from any country outside the United States should quarantine themselves for 14 days after returning and let their local public health officials know about their travel.

In Bozeman, the Gallatin City-County Health Department can be reached at 406-548-0123.

“If you traveled outside of the United States during spring break and live in one of MSU’s residence halls, we urge you to not return to campus,” Cruzado wrote. “Please stay with your family and loved ones until your 14-day self-quarantine period is over. Your family and loved ones are best able to provide you care should you need it.”

Students who need critical items from their dorm rooms can fill out a university request form (https://www.montana.edu/reslife/personal-item-request.html) to have important items mailed to them.

“If the last week has taught us a lesson, it is to start every new day with the expectation that the ways in which we conduct our routines might be and will be altered,” Cruzado wrote. “Given this new temporary reality, let’s commit to helping each other and to be kind to individuals around us who, chances are, are also experiencing great changes and alterations in their life.”

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.