Vermont State Colleges System Postpones Monday Consolidation Vote
Updated 4:45 p.m.
State college leaders have delayed a Monday vote on a plan to close three Vermont campuses, but warned the financial pressures that inspired the proposal remain severe.
The decision came after opposition quickly mounted in the Statehouse and in local communities to the plan to close Northern Vermont University, which has campuses in Johnson and Lyndon, and Vermont Technical College's campus in Randolph. The state college system, which has long struggled with declining enrollment and financial trouble, is facing large budget gaps caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I have listened to my colleagues on the Board and want to give them time to consider the very significant decisions we have to make," said Board Chair J. Churchill Hindes. However, he cautioned that "delayed action increases the profound financial risks facing all four VSC Colleges and Universities. Those risks grow daily."
According to a statement issued Sunday by the Vermont State Colleges, the system spends approximately $6 million on payroll and expenses every two weeks. "The System could run out of operating funds by mid-June, forcing it to begin spending its already low reserves," reads the statement.
Hindes added, "We simply do not have the funds to afford a protracted discussion and debate."
Monday's Board of Trustees meeting will now be informational, giving trustees a week to consider Chancellor Jeb Spaulding's closure plan before the board's next meeting on Monday, April 27.
Legislative leaders, alumni, faculty call for Monday's vote to be postponed
Earlier on Sunday, Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson on Sunday issued a joint statement calling for the vote to be delayed.
Soon after, Gov. Phil Scott issued his own statement, saying he "did not support," Spaulding's plan. But he also warned against preserving the status quo. He did not directly address the issue of whether the board should delay Monday's vote.
“I don’t support the current plan as proposed or asking taxpayers to bailout a system that is no longer financially viable," Scott said. "There is a far better, more positive path forward, including for the communities that rely on the state college campuses to sustain their local economies — if we are creative and committed to the hard work ahead.”
The legislators acknowledged the financial challenges Vermont’s State College System faces.
“The COVID-19 financial impacts are real, as is the uncertainty the pandemic has created in terms of the upcoming academic year,” Ashe and Johnson said. “In addition, enrollment and financial challenges pre-exist the pandemic. Those structural issues are the true long term threats to the Vermont State Colleges and other higher education institutions in Vermont.”
However, Ashe and Johnson called the decision to hold a vote over whether to close the three campuses with three days’ notice from the announcement of their pending closure “not appropriate” without a public plan for “what comes next.”
The state college system is projecting an immediate deficit of up to $10 million, due in large part to refunding room and board to students who were sent away from campus when the COVID-19 pandemic started. The colleges are also anticipating a 15-20% drop in enrollment for the next academic year.
"I don't support the current plan as proposed or asking taxpayers to bailout a system that is no longer financially viable." — Gov. Phil Scott
The legislators further advocated for the development of a one-year bridge budget to keep the three campuses open for the next academic year, and for the establishment of a multi-institution workgroup to consider options for beyond next school year.
Meanwhile, the faculty assemblies at NVU-Johnson and NVU-Lyndon both wrote to the Vermont State Colleges System Board of Trustees to announce a vote of no confidence in Spaulding. The alumni councils of the campuses took a similar action.
Newport resident Renee Fortin is among many students who commute to Northern Vermont University's Lyndon campus. The 21-year-old said relocating to Castleton’s campus, as recommended in the state college system’s proposal, is unrealistic.
“I have a job here I work at an after school program,” Fortin said. “I have family here that rely on me for certain things and animals that rely on me. I’ve built my life around my ability to commute to college and so giving me a summer to pick up my life and move it three hours away isn’t something I can do.”
As of Sunday afternoon, the state colleges’ consolidation plan will not be presented to the system’s board of trustees for a vote Monday. The meeting will instead be informational.
Gov. Phil Scott weighs in
Scott called on the Legislature to begin working immediately on a statewide plan to rethink and strengthen the education system.
Scott said he sees three ways forward for the state colleges: to adopt the currently proposed plan, to ask taxpayers to pour “tens of millions into the current system,” or to “seize the opportunity to save the state college system and use it to strengthen our entire education system, from cradle to career.”
Spaulding on Sunday called for a decision to be made regarding the system's future promptly. "The recommendations I have laid out are an attempt to avoid a catastrophic result for Vermonters' access to higher education and reposition the entire System for the future," he said. "We are happy that we will have the opportunity to engage with the governor and with the legislature."
Spaulding cautioned that action must be taken soon. "I must emphasize we cannot wait to act until after the completion of a long deliberation — as some have suggested," he said Sunday. "In addition to the financial consequences, the result would be that students may forego their education with us, potentially leaving the state, and staff will seek more reliable employment elsewhere... we find ourselves in a vicious cycle of decline."