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Tu-Uyen Tran, Grand Forks Herald, Published October 17 2009

Edication board says it wasn’t clear on its policies

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – North Dakota Board of Higher Education officials concluded Friday that they were not clear with university officials that state money was not to be used in building new homes for the institutions’ presidents.

“Our policy was probably less than clear,” said Jon Backes, committee chairman and vice president of the board.

The board met with North Dakota State University and University of North Dakota officials Friday in Fargo and then Grand Forks to discuss the use of state money to pay for cost overruns at the president homes constructed this year.

Much of the unauthorized public funds went into items such as site preparation and landscaping. The universities said they thought they didn’t have to ask for authorization because it is established practice that those items are at the discretion of each university.

Board members took a kinder tone with university officials Friday. Unlike the scolding dished out when the full board convened in September, the committee limited itself Friday to a few questions and some opinions about what the foundation should’ve done.

But a higher ed board report released by staff Thursday contained strong criticism of the use of public money for the homes.

“Detailed information and documentation regarding decisions to spend institutions funds – including who authorized those expenditures and under what authority or whose direction those decisions were made – has not been submitted by either institution,” stated the report.

At UND, the person directly responsible for the unauthorized spending of public funds is Rick Tonder, associate director of facilities and planning.

Universities, he said, are allowed to spend up to $250,000 on projects, from building renovations to landscaping to sidewalks, without asking the board for permission.

Tonder said an official university residence is a part of the campus, which is a tightly knit collection of buildings, landscaping and sidewalks.

He added, however, that UND listed the site prep at the president’s house even though it wouldn’t be necessary if the university didn’t have plans to build the new Alumni Center next door.

So, he said, UND chose to prepare the site for the center at the same time and, because of the proximity, the line between the two sites were blurred.

Nevertheless, Backes said he expects auditors will look into the unauthorized spending.

The Grand Forks Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.