It took only a little more than 5 minutes of discussion: The University of Idaho won't be forced to cut three sports after the State Board of Education granted a waiver Thursday giving the Vandals more time to balance their athletics budget.
The athletic department is expected to run a deficit for a second consecutive year, at just under $1 million for the fiscal year ending in June. With a policy requiring schools to eliminate such deficits within two years, President Chuck Staben said earlier this month that he would have to cut women's soccer, women's swimming and diving, and men's golf.
Idaho sought to extend its deficit deadline to four years, but the State Board settled on three years.
"There is certainly no intent for the institution to have to take draconian actions here," State Board athletics chair Richard Westerberg said.
Staben said part of the solution to finding a more balanced budget in the future would in fact be to add three sports: women's triathlon, men's swimming and rifle. Those would be limited-scholarship sports that would increase enrollment and be inexpensive to maintain. That plan will take some time to come together. If the waiver had not been granted, Staben would have had to act immediately to cut costs by eliminating the three sports.
"We still are going to have to act quickly, but not in the same way," Staben said Thursday. "I think we can make some changes in athletics, take advantage of our scholarships, continue to look into expenses."
The Vandals still hope to add the three sports, but Staben said that plan would not be able to move forward until a proposal to change State Board policy is approved. Idaho hopes to allow more flexibility on how much general education revenue is spent on athletics, something not voted on Thursday, but Staben said he hopes that could happen as soon as August. Idaho's plan would bring into consideration the tuition, fees, books, and room and board revenue generated by athletes.
"We're still intending to seek the policy revision, because adding any expenses right now would just dig us a bigger hole," Staben said.
A handful of Idaho athletes and coaches, plus club soccer and swimming coaches, spoke before Thursday's meeting in Moscow to offer their hopes that sports would not be cut.
"They gave very compelling testimony on the value of athletics," Staben said. "The board was very primed to understand how important it was. "
The State Board said it hopes to have the deficit resolved by the end of the 2021 fiscal year, and Idaho will need to deliver annual progress reports each April, plus midyear updates to the Business Affairs and Human Resources Committee.
"This board has no interest in causing harm to student-athletes, cutting athletic programs, or to micromanage this," State Board Chairman Linda Clark said. "We do need to grant university leaders a fair amount of time to consider all factors and develop a plan. The onus for the plan falls on the University of Idaho."