This was updated at 8:13 p.m.
Trustees for the Vermont State Colleges will postpone by at least a week a decision on a radical restructuring proposal, announced just two days prior, that would cut 500 employees and shutter three of the system’s campuses.
The announcement followed a torrent of public backlash over the weekend as well as pushback from Gov. Phil Scott and legislative leaders.
A meeting Monday of the trustees will be informational only, trustee Chair Church Hindes said in a statement released late Sunday afternoon. The board will meet again April 27.
In the announcement, however, Hindes said there is little time to waste. The system’s already rocky finances were hit hard by the pandemic shutdown, and college officials are projecting a near-term operating deficit of $7 million to $10 million. In his statement, Hindes said the system could run out of operating funds by mid-June and would need to begin spending from reserves.
“Delayed action increases the profound financial risks facing all four VSCS Colleges and Universities. Those risks grow daily. We simply do not have the funds to afford a protracted discussion and debate,” Hindes wrote.
But discussion and debate appears to be what top lawmakers are pushing for. In a joint statement issued late Sunday morning, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, and Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, called on state colleges system leaders to postpone action until they had time to analyze the economic impact the closures could have on the campuses’ host communities.
The lawmakers suggested trustees develop a one-year bridge budget proposal to keep all three campuses open while a longer-term solution is crafted. A multi-institution workgroup should be established to consider options beyond the 2020-2021 academic year, they added.
“While we recognize that change must come, an abrupt vote to close three campuses, with three days notice, without a public plan for what comes next for the students, faculty and staff, and the host communities is not appropriate, especially in this era of unprecedented unknown,” the lawmakers wrote.
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On Sunday afternoon, Gov. Phil Scott weighed in as well. The Republican governor said while he did not support “adopting the current plan as proposed or asking taxpayers to bailout a system that is no longer financially viable,” he believed a third way was possible.
“I’m calling on the Legislature to begin work immediately on a statewide plan to rethink, reform and strengthen the education system in ways that are fair and equitable to every student, every community and every taxpayer,” Scott said in a statement.
There appears to be some uncertainty, meanwhile, about whether trustees have the unilateral authority to close any of the VSCS’s member schools.
Vermont law states that the state college system “shall not abandon, lease, sell, or dispose of any of the institutions under its control unless that action is specifically authorized by the General Assembly.”
“My basic understanding is that there may be a difference of opinion between the legislative lawyers and the VSC lawyers,” Johnson said in an interview. “And it’s really about what people think of the term abandonment.”
On Friday, VSCS Chancellor Jeb Spaulding announced he would recommend trustees close Northern Vermont University, which has campuses in Johnson and Lyndon, and shutter Vermont Technical College’s Randolph campus to consolidate operations to its Williston location.
The state colleges have been suffering from chronic underfunding and declining enrollments for years, and Spaulding argued that the pandemic’s budgetary impacts required radical action to save the larger institution from insolvency. Spaulding’s plan would leave the system with only one residential, liberal arts focused school – Castleton University. The Community College of Vermont would take on an expanded role statewide and would deliver four-year programming.
Public furor over Spaulding’s plan was immediate. The faculty assembly at NVU on Saturday issued a no confidence vote in the chancellor, and in a separate letter to trustees called Spaulding’s recommendations a “shortsighted massacre with lasting and irrevocable consequences.”
On Facebook, a group called “Protest Vermont State College (Permanent) Closures!” had well over 6,000 members by Sunday and had organized a car parade in Montpelier for Monday morning to demonstrate against the closures. And one online petition started by an NVU student had garnered more than 25,000 signatures by Sunday.
Patrick Wickstrom, a NVU-Lyndon student from Texas who started the petition, spoke out against the closure of the schools at a press conference hosted by Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman on Sunday afternoon.
“The VSCS provides so much for … not only the northeast economy, but the economy of Vermont as a whole. It brings young people like myself,” he said.
Wickstrom argued that the schools could serve a particularly important role in their northern Vermont communities as the local economies reel from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic shutdown.
“Without these colleges, these communities would struggle even further than Covid has already allowed them to,” he said. “These colleges are essential to the recovery of the Vermont state economy.”
Whether Spaulding’s plan is ultimately adopted or not, it is likely to reignite a debate about funding for public higher education. Vermont perennially ranks at the bottom nationally in state support for its colleges, and the schools must rely on student tuition and fees for over 80% of their revenues. Many critics of the chancellor’s plan have been quick to point out that the system’s fragile finances were the result of a lack of legislative support for more state funding.
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Zuckerman called on trustees to take more time to consider their options. “The state has not been a very good partner in funding these institutions with annual budget appropriations,” he said.
During the same press conference, Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, who chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, defended the Legislature’s investment in the system.
“There have been increases made,” Kitchel said, although she acknowledged many considered them inadequate.
“Once again, you have finite revenues unless we want to go for taxes. And so that gets into that very difficult discussion around what do we fund, how are we funding it,” she said.
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