A proposal endorsed by Associated Student of Madison (ASM) leadership would provide nearly $2 million in housing assistance for students affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but University of Wisconsin administrators say such funding isn’t allowed under UW System segregated fee policy.
The legislation, which ASM student council is expected to approve at its January 26 meeting, would allocate $500,000 of the ASM’s excess budget and approximately $1.5 million belonging to the ASM Reserve Board for a fund to be administered by the Tenant Resource Center (TRC).
Under an existing contract, ASM pays TRC $50-60,000 per school year to provide UW students with Tenant Support Services such as assistance with constructing a payment plan and supporting students through difficult roommate and/or landlord situations. Funding per the legislation would be incorporated into the current budget outlined in the contract.
The money would be utilized for a “COVID-19 Student Relief Fund” to help students pay for rent and utilities. While the University expects to receive additional CARES Act funding from the federal government, only students who filled out FAFSA forms are eligible to access those funds, according to a statement by Madison Alder Max Prestigiacomo. This includes undocumented students, DACA recipients, and international students, as well as students on scholarship and low-income students.
TRC Executive Director Robin Sereno confirmed in a message to Madison365 that the organization has “staff capacity to facilitate rental assistance tied to our current UW ASM program contract,” and that ASM had asked them to do just that.
On Wednesday, the Reserve Board voted unanimously to endorse the proposal.
Both ASM and the Reserve Board have autonomy over their respective expenditures; however, the Reserve Board budget is funded by “segregated university fees” paid by students. As such, Reserve Board spending is subject to review and denial by UW-Madison if it violates system policies.
In a written statement to Madison365, UW spokesperson Meredith McGlone outlined the specifics of the violation.
“System Policy 820 sets a number of limitations on the use of segregated fees,” Mcglone wrote. “It prohibits direct support to individual students except for child care assistance grants, wages for student employees and scholarships/stipends for student government leaders … System Policy 820 also prohibits gifts, donations, and contributions and does not allow for lump sum payments to be provided to organizations (as opposed to payments for specific purposes supported by invoices budgets and/or grant applications).”
However, McGlone misstated the policy: System Policy 820 prohibits lump sum payments to student organizations, but does not mention other off-campus organizations like TRC.
System Policy 820 also states that segregated fees may not be used for “Direct financial aid to an enrolled student such as scholarships, tuition, room, and board.”
Although unaddressed in the legislation, ASM Chair Matthew Mitnick noted that because the money will be administered by the TRC, ASM will not be directly offering students “individual cash or a handout.”
Further, the ASM proposal says the allocation does not violate the policy because it does not constitute a gift, donation, or contribution, but rather establishes a fund which TRC will administer “directly to landlords and housing agencies.”
“The COVID-19 Student Relief Fund will be used for student rental assistance and utilities, thereby adhering to UW System Administrative Policy 820 in that segregated university fees are being used to operate the operation and fulfillment of ASM’s charge to ensure the functionality of students without undue financial stress related to housing insecurity,” the proposal states.
Mitnick added that ASM is acting within the full scope of its contract with the TRC.
“We’re already paying them to do Tenant Support Services so by then implementing this fund…they’re just performing the existing contract … and administering a fund like this falls within that jurisdiction,” Mitnick said.
According to their contract, ASM is allowed to increase or decrease funding to the TRC and change the scope of the contract, as long as agreed upon by both parties.
Mcglone noted that the existing contract between ASM and TRC is permissible under System Policy 820 because “it did not involve giving money to students (or to others on their behalf) to support their living.”
In a meeting yesterday between members of the UW administration and legal team, and Mitnick, university officials insisted that the money be allocated elsewhere.
“They think some of this money should go to other units” such as the RecWell fitness center or Wisconsin Union, Mitnick said. “And I’ll go on the record saying that Recreation & Wellbeing has basically been lobbying ASM to help them, to give them money through our reserve. Same with the Memorial Union, Union South which is super problematic, because [the university] claims that by supporting [RecWell and Wisconsin Union], we would be helping students, but that’s like a trickle-down economics approach. And again, if we invest in the infrastructure of the university, that’s not going to help students right now. Why don’t we just give direct aid to those who are suffering the most from the pandemic?”
Mitnick said the “lobbying” took place during a Reserve Board meeting, but McGlone said the comments made at that meeting have been mischaracterized.
UW Student Affairs leaders, including Dean of Students Christina Olstad and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori Reesor, did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.
If passed, the University can sue and contest the legality of the legislation with ASM in court.
If allowed to move forward, ASM will begin working on opening up the fund’s application process as well as work in tandem with UW’s current Emergency Support Fund via the Office of Financial Aid.
“We’ve even received some verbal commitments from financial aid that, if this fund were to occur, they’d be willing to work alongside us in that capacity,” Mitnick said.
ASM officials have asked for a meeting with Chancellor Rebecca Blank on February 9 to discuss her stance and possible next steps.
This story has been updated to reflect UW’s denial that Recreation and Wellness had done any “lobbying” for funding.