The Americas

Spare a dime? Puerto Rico seeks change to help university

The budget woes at Puerto Rico's largest public university are so bad that the U.S. territory will soon ask people for spare change to support it.

Gov. Ricardo Rossello introduced a bill Monday to have commercial businesses ask if customers want to donate part of their change to the University of Puerto Rico, which faces deep cuts after the island's decade-long economic slump.

The proposal comes as a federal control board overseeing the finances of Puerto Rico's government seeks to cut $450 million from the University of Puerto Rico's budget in upcoming years as part of overall cost-slashing measures. The school's budget for the fiscal year ending June 30 was a little over $1 billion. Rossello has proposed that the cut be reduced to $241 million, but the issue has not yet been resolved.

Rossello's measure would create a registry of businesses authorized to collect change donated to help the university, whose main campus and several others have been shuttered for a month by a strike by tens of thousands of students protesting the cuts.

Another bill the governor submitted would create a commemorative license plate to help raise funds for the school, with the institution receiving $20 per purchase.

The ideas were two of several that university students proposed during a recent meeting with government officials, said Thomas Rivera Schatz, president of Puerto Rico's Senate.

"All those suggestions were carefully listened to," he told reporters, adding that he and a legislature controlled by Rossello's party fully supports the governor's actions.

The looming budget cuts prompted nearly a dozen top university officials to resign in protest in February, and the strike followed shortly afterward.

A group of students filed a lawsuit seeking to return to classes, and an appeals court last week ordered the university to open by Thursday.

Student leaders said they would not heed the court's order but rather hold an assembly Wednesday to vote on the issue. University officials warned that if they don't obey the order, a judge could impose penalties on everyone involved.

"We urge everyone to reflect so that the University of Puerto Rico can finally open its gates and continue with its mission," said the university's interim president, Nivia Fernandez.

The university has 11 campuses and more than 50,000 students. The system already has seen nearly $350 million in cuts in recent years, and professors have been denied sabbaticals and salary increases.