BY RYAN BOWMAN
Trusting a multimillion-dollar budget to a group of 20-somethings with varying levels of business experience may seem like a leap of faith, but it’s a leap Conestoga College students make every September.
In addition to paying tuition, every Conestoga student pays a mandatory annual fee to Conestoga Students Inc. (CSI), the college’s independent student association. Other than collecting the fees, the college is completely separate from CSI and has no authority over how the private company is run.
Fees, which vary from year to year, ranged in 2012 from $18 for students at the Guelph and Stratford campuses to $155 for students at Cambridge and Doon. Students at Waterloo paid $50.
And while the fee may not seem like a lot, it brought in more than $1.3 million for CSI – more than a quarter of its projected revenue of $4.3 million.
The largest source of the student association’s income (nearly $2.4 million) comes from the student health plan, an initiative on which it plans to make a profit of about $38,000.
Unlike other companies, however, which save or reinvest their profits, CSI’s mandate is to give it all back to its customers.
Ciara Byrne, president of CSI, said the association is committed to spending every penny it makes on bettering the educational experiences of Conestoga’s students.
“None of the revenue that we make is ever banked or kept for profit, it all goes back into services for the students,” said Byrne, adding surpluses are rare.
“The purpose of CSI is to ensure students are getting enhanced satisfaction,” she said. “How they get that is through representation, skills development and leadership opportunities, activities and events, and supports like the health plan and the food bank.”
According to Byrne, CSI’s board of directors meet every year to discuss exactly how the money will be spent.
“The board creates a strategic plan every year and decides on the big vision items they want to see. From there, the staff takes that and refines it,” she said. “We always go off the board’s guidance because they’re responsible for ensuring they connect with students and talk with students.”
Byrne said CSI gets feedback from students through surveys and focus groups, as well as keeping open lines of communication.
Based on demand, the majority of CSI’s expenses often go toward activities and entertainment.
This year’s budget accounted for just over $2.3 million going toward events such as bar days, comedy nooners, Frosh Week and pancake breakfasts. New services for 2012-2013 included the CSI shuttle, sponsorship of the Koi Music Festival in Kitchener and the upcoming leadership conference.
Other than activities and entertainment, the CSI’s biggest expense is administration.
“Administration costs are always iffy, and students may say we spend too much on staff,” Byrne said. “But if we don’t have enough staff we can’t serve the students to the ability we need to.
“We’re bursting at the seams right now and our staff are doing triple duty. We definitely reserve ourselves when it comes to growing staff and paying them and all of that, but we do have to pay them fairly or they’ll leave.”
CSI employs 10 full-time staff and another 40 or so part-time, most of whom are students at the college. This year’s administration expenses, which also include costs for running the offices, were projected at $819,500.
“Other notable expenses included $30,000 spent on agenda books, $40,000 on photocopier expenses, $45,000 on SWAG, $15,000 subsidizing Toonie Tuesdays, $54,000 in membership fees to the College Student Alliance and $87,500 in board expenses.
Board expenses, which are separate from administrative expenses, include everything from sending staff to professional conferences to staff uniforms (T-shirts) and feeding board members at meetings.
Byrne said every cent CSI spends on the board is for the betterment of the students, including the $3,000 the company spent on its staff Christmas party last December.
“We need to keep our staff happy or they’ll leave,” she said. “We are a student association, and we absolutely want to put the students first, but at the same time 90 per cent of our staff are students as well.”
Byrne said between full-time and part-time staff and their guests, a total of about 85 people attended the party. She said CSI tried to cut costs by holding the celebration in The Sanctuary.
She said the costs included dinner, comedians, appreciation gifts for staff (umbrellas) and prizes, which included gift cards taped to the bottom of random chairs and four Apple iPads as door prizes.
“We did that because it’s a Christmas party,” Byrne said of the prizes. “They deserve it and you need to show them they’re appreciated and that we know how hard they work.”
Von Lo, a first-year health office administration student at Conestoga, said she doesn’t have a problem with CSI spending part of its budget on staff parties.
“I don’t have any complaints about it,” she said. “If you break it down, it’s really not a lot per student to pay for something like that. It’s nice to acknowledge staff, so I don’t have an issue with it.”
She did, however, say students should have a choice whether or not they put money in CSI’s pockets.
“Maybe the fees should be optional. Some of us don’t use their services or get our money’s worth,” she said. “It might also be nice to know in more detail what they’re doing with our money.”
Emma Budziarek, a second-year business administration – management student, said while she appreciated all that CSI does for students, she does not support the use of fees on social events like Christmas parties.
“The purpose of CSI is for us,” she said. “I know they’re a company, but it’s not like they’re in it for profit. That money should go back to us. Any extra money should benefit us, not them.”
Jami Pyne, also in her second year of business administration – management, agreed.
“Why should we pay for something for them?” she said. “They have some good services and good events, but all the money should be spent on the students.”
Pyne said CSI fees benefit “most” students and thinks they should be mandatory, but said there is a fine line on how CSI dollars should be spent.
“They should raise money for stuff like that on their own, maybe like a donation jar or fundraisers,” she said. “Sure they deserve to have parties, but not with our money.”
Byrne said while the money spent on the party may not have directly benefited the entire student population, it built company morale.
“We always have a justified reason for whatever we do and whatever we spend,” she said. “Even if it’s just showing appreciation for our staff, that’s part of business.”
Spending by student associations has been under the microscope in recent months, with the McMaster Association of Part-time Students (MAPS) receiving intense scrutiny for its spending practices.
The association allegedly used funds to decorate their office and reception area with custom drapery, paintings and an espresso machine. It was also accused of splurging on bridal showers, birthday parties and an $8,000 trip for two of its members to Rome, Italy.
Higher than average salaries also came into question and led to the resignation of executive director, Samuel Minniti, who reportedly earned $126,152 in 2011.
But McMaster is not alone.
The University of Windsor Students’ Alliance lost $40,000 on a concert last September and the Memorial University of Newfoundland Students’ Union spent $100,000 bringing in Snoop Dogg.
A white paper released by the provincial Progressive Conservative party in January called for increased transparency, responsibility and accountability from student unions and associations when it comes to expenditures.
“Student unions have a great deal of power and ability to increase the expense of a post-secondary education,” said the paper, entitled Paths to Prosperity: Higher Learning for Better Jobs. “They must be held to a stricter standard. Student union fees should not be used for any activity or expense which may be construed as not being in the interest of all students.”
Byrne said other than the Christmas party and a year-end dinner which costs “maybe $100,” CSI doesn’t spend any money on parties.
She said the association did spend $68,000 on renovating its offices last year, but the expenses were necessary and the funds spent modestly.
“The reason we renovated is that we had two separate offices and students were getting confused,” she said. “Also, it was bad for company communications. We’ve spent some money trying to make our offices more welcoming, but there’s not much going on that’s super fancy or expensive.”
She said the association doesn’t permit spending on birthdays, showers or social events. As far as trips, “the only time our staff go anywhere is if it’s approved by myself or the general manager,” Byrne said. “It has to be a professional conference that we’re a member of, and normally they’re within driving distance.”
Some staff members have low-limit credit cards and laptops, and all are supplied with cellphones. Byrne said receipts and statements are reviewed monthly and audits are conducted annually. In her four years with CSI, two as president, there have been no red flags.
According to Byrne, CSI also has an assets protection policy in place. It states the president cannot spend money, cheques for over $10,000 must be approved by the board, and money not approved in the budget cannot be spent.
She said the association also tries to maintain a culture of transparency and honesty.
“Our audits and budgets go on the website and students can come in and talk to us anytime,” she said.
“Absolutely everything we do and everything in our strategic plan 100 per cent benefits the students, and if they’re having doubts or questions, I encourage them to come and ask.
“We’ve never turned a student away.”