THIRTY-FOUR STUDENT WORKERS at Portland State University received sad news this school year: Their jobs at the Office of Information Technology (OIT) were nixed, they were told, because of state budget cuts. Management was apolo- getic—but, in a violation of school policy, they also asked students and staff not to talk to reporters.
That rationale now appears to have been cover for a far more troubling problem, according to sources at PSU. In recent weeks, students and staff have anonymously come forward to reveal OIT is actually facing a $300,000 shortfall of its own doing—the result of sloppy bookkeeping by a recently fired accountant and, apparently, little oversight by managers.
The misdirection added insult to injury, the workers say, since OIT management recently received raises while PSU tuition went up nine percent. What's more, a spokeswoman for the Oregon University System said that despite the system losing $158 million overall, "that budget crunch has not led to across-the-board cuts in student hours in other universities."
In mid-December, OIT managers knew they were in trouble. The department runs the computer and audio-visual systems for PSU, Oregon's largest university. In November, then-OIT Fiscal Officer David Atalig went on leave. Department chief Sharon Blanton took the chance to review his accounting. According to three current workers, she found a $300,000 shortfall. Soon after, Atalig was fired.
Scott Gallagher, a PSU spokesman, didn't deny the accusations but wouldn't confirm them either, saying the university doesn't comment on employment issues absent criminal activity.
After discovering the accounting mistakes, according to emails obtained by the Mercury, the department's upper management offered different explanations to different people. In a January 19 email to OIT's non-student staff, Blanton said the shortfall was "over and above" Oregon University System's statewide hiring freeze and called out Atalig: "Many of you have heard that with the recent departure of our fiscal officer, we have had difficulty sorting out some budget issues."
But in a February 8 email to student workers, managers reporting to Blanton blamed the job cuts on the state's hiring freeze. That claim was repeated in a letter to faculty explaining which tech services were being cut.
"In January it became clear that we were in big trouble," says a non-student staffer, who feared losing her job if she went on record. It surprised staff that PSU's technology department chose to patch its shortfall by cutting student jobs, especially since students make only $9 to $12.50 an hour. OIT has since rehired 13 former workers through federal work-study—but that may amount to a pay cut, because those students' hours will now be capped.
No one who spoke with the Mercury is sure exactly where the $300,000 went, or whether it was even there to begin with. Likewise, nobody really knows what Blanton knew about Atalig's bookkeeping prior to mid-December, but the suspicion in OIT is that she probably signed off on budgets without fully reviewing them.
Several OIT managers declined to comment. Atalig did not return multiple messages requesting an interview, and Blanton responded to specific questions only via general emailed statements. In one email, Blanton points out that OIT is saving PSU $100,000 annually by using Google Docs and offered a new reason for the cuts and layoffs: rising software and hardware costs, and a lack of bond funding.
Another staffer says that he suspected budget problems as long ago as 2007—the staffer had never even been able to get a concrete budget for his department.
"You couldn't get someone to put a piece of paper with any numbers in front of you—and that is just maddening," says the staffer.