Facing Budget Cuts, Extension Worked to Find Local Priorities

By Allison Floyd

Monday, April 28th, 2014

As states across the country cut funding for Extension Services over the past several years, the people who lead those programs have had to take a hard look at the services Extension provides and how they could live within the budget.

“There were some programs that we had to admit we no longer could do (in some places),” said Beverly Sparks, the director and associate dean of Extension at the University of Georgia, which lost nearly one-third of state funding in five years.

Cooperative Extension celebrates 100 years this year, an anniversary that recognizes the passage of the Smith-Lever Act, which created a system of research, education and outreach programs across the country. In most places, Extension is funded through a mix of federal, state and local tax dollars. Even before the latest recession, however, Extension programs across the country started to lose funding and were forced to consider which programs are most important to the people of their state.

North Carolina is the latest state to ask that tough question, as Extension Service leaders travelled around the state late last fall to ask Tar Heels what role Extension plays in their lives.

“It’s both reactive and proactive,” said Justin Moore, a spokesman for the North Carolina Extension Service. “Extension turns 100 on May 8, so we see this as an opportunity to reflect on our successes and impacts we’ve had over the past 20 years. But we also want to look at ourselves in the mirror and say, ‘OK, who do we want to be going forward?’ That’s the proactive part.

“But we also are reacting to our economic reality. The Cooperative System in North Carolina has seen cuts of $20 million since 2000,” Moore said. The program already cut 90 positions through attrition over the past four years, so officials wanted to make sure that their priorities for extension matched residents’ expectations.

“We are at the point where we must prioritize what we can do best with the staffing that our funding will support,” said N.C. Cooperative Extension Director Joe Zublena, who took advice from Georgia colleagues about the feedback and restructuring process. “The North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service has provided a century’s worth of education and solutions that help families and communities succeed. Through this initiative, priority one is to ensure another 100 years of trusted service for the people of North Carolina.”

The Vision Initiative, as it is called, kicked off in North Carolina last fall and included 14 listening sessions held around the state. Over the next few weeks, officials will compile the hundreds of comments received in those listening sessions and through surveys from dozens of county leaders across the state, then come up with a list of recommendations from the Visioning Team.

Georgia  and other Southern states went through similar reflection and restructuring over the past few years.

The most important part of that process was listening to local government and taxpayers. Ignoring their input would only make the budget pinch worse, since Extension could risk local funding, too.

In Georgia, state funding plummeted and federal funding stayed the same or dropped a little. But local communities actually invested MORE in Extension as they  set priorities for programs, Sparks said.

“We had to ask, ‘OK, what five programs are most important to you in your county?’” Sparks said.

In many farming communities, local people said agricultural research and access to Extension specialists was most important. In other rural communities, people insisted that 4-H was the most important aspect of Extension in their communities.

Budget cuts challenged Extension programs across the country to work even closer with local people they serve and for Extension customers to make their priorities known – both to Extension leaders and to legislators who have to vote for funding.

“In most recent years, constituents have expressed their priorities and legislators have made a commitment to support Extension,” Sparks said.