Which came as more of a shock?

The plan announced Friday to almost immediately close colleges in Johnson, Lyndon and Randolph or the withdrawal of that plan late Wednesday morning.

Jeb Spaulding, chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges System, said he withdrew the plan after he and the college system’s board of trustees “heard loud and clear from thousands of students, employees, communities and the state’s elected leadership and determined that my recommendations would be damaging on too many levels and would not be acceptable.

“I accept their judgement. Indications are positive that the state leaders will be assisting us to get through the immediate problem, although we are not sure of exactly how at this time. We will be taking additional time to work with elected, campus and community leaders to redesign the Vermont State Colleges System to be sustainable.

“That means we do not plan to close campuses this fall.”

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The 180-degree turn came after five days of protests.

The announcement came minutes before the News & Citizen went to press. The news coverage in today’s paper explains how things came to this point — including the college financial problems that won’t be going away.

Lamoille County Sen. Richard Westman, a 1982 graduate of Johnson State College, said, when told the news Wednesday morning, “I’m so fricken thrilled it’s not funny.”

But Westman also thinks a lot of the thinking behind Spaulding’s proposal was based on the coronavirus pandemic, and he’s concerned that news coverage of the proposal might have done some damage, particularly for people planning to attend Northern Vermont University or Vermont Technical College this fall.

“I’m worried that having put this on the table might have sent the wrong impression that there isn’t state support for these colleges, because there is,” Westman said.

While Spaulding’s decision Wednesday will likely bring relief to thousands, his concerns about the college system’s finances still remain.

In withdrawing his plan, Spaulding said, “I am taking this action with strident caution that the current configuration of the Vermont State Colleges is not sustainable; it cannot continue for long.”

One week, maybe

That’s how much time the Vermont State College System board of trustees had given itself to decide whether to shut down the college campuses in Johnson, Lyndon and Randolph.

Chancellor Jeb Spaulding, on Friday, called for near-immediate campus closures, citing aging demographics and stagnant enrollment as drags on the system’s finances, as well as continued lack of financial support from the state.

Spaulding said the coronavirus pandemic contributed to his recommendation, with a predicted 15 to 20 percent drop in enrollment this fall, and the $12 million budget deficit that comes with that.

Spaulding initially called for the trustees to vote Monday on the shutdown, but protestations from thousands of people during the weekend caused the trustees to hit the pause button and hold off voting on the proposal until next Monday, April 27.

Now that, too, has been nullified.

“One of the best pieces of advice I received from my mom is to never make a major decision in the middle of a crisis, and right now we are in the middle of, hopefully, the biggest crisis in our lives,” said Laura Gannon, a professor at Community College of Vermont, which is part of the state college system. Gannon was one of more than a hundred people who offered live testimony to the trustees Monday. “Although the experts say the COVID crisis will last 12 to 18 months, the board is making a decision that will impact generations of Vermonters to come.”

Spaulding’s plan called for folding the Johnson and Lyndon campuses of Northern Vermont University into Castleton University. He also proposes closing the main Randolph campus of Vermont Technical College and moving those programs to the much smaller Williston satellite campus.

CCV would have played a bigger, albeit undetermined, role.

Postponement of the vote bought legislators more time to try to negotiate a stopgap measure that could keep the colleges open another year.

Spaulding had cautioned against spending too much time, saying a week may not seem long, but the state college system spends about $6 million every two weeks on payroll and expenses.

Spaulding said the pandemic has more than doubled the state college system’s operating deficit to between $7 million and $10 million this fiscal year. But that figure includes a one-time $5.6 million refund to students for room and board after the pandemic forced them to move off-campus and shift to remote learning.

According to his presentation to the board, a “status quo” scenario — keeping everything open and assuming similar levels of state support — leads to increasing deficits.

Those are future projections, though. Without roughly $25 million extra immediately, Spaulding said, the system could run out of operating funds by mid-June, forcing it to begin spending its reserves. By September, the system would “burn through everything except the endowment.”

“We can’t do that,” Spaulding said. “We just don’t have enough time.”

Board meeting

The state college board of trustees still met on Monday, but only for informational purposes. The eight-hour meeting featured three full hours of nonstop public comment.

Board chair J. Churchill “Church” Hindes said he counted 104 people weighing in during the Zoom teleconference, in addition to more than 1,000 written comments submitted since Spaulding shocked the state with his plan on Friday.

A small sampling of some of those comments:

• Rep. Lucy Rogers, D-Waterville: “No one is better equipped to solve a community problem than the members of that community.”

• Beth Foy, Johnson: “This is not a conversation that should be made by 14, 15, 16 people.”

• Jesse Streeter, senior at Johnson: “I don’t know how a decision can be reached in such a short amount of time.”

• Adam Kane, director of the Fairbanks Museum and a Lyndon alumnus: “You’ve killed recruiting for the year. That was an incredibly reckless thing to do.”

• Alia Thabit, Lyndon alum and part-time professor there: “Rather than slashing the wrist of the state college system, double the funding.”

At the end of the marathon board meeting, Hindes said the board has made many decisions in his 18 years as a trustee, some of them good, some bad.

“This is a whopper,” he said.

Spaulding, at the end of the meeting, said his “motives are pure,” but he could hear in the comments “the pain, the frustration, the fear, the lack of confidence. It’s all there.”

He said he will see what legislative leaders “bring to the table.”

“My sole mission is to protect the Vermont State College System the best that I can,” he told the board. “This is not something I relish recommending, but I worry about jeopardizing he entire system.”

Worth saving

Lamoille County Sen. Rich Westman, R-Cambridge, is on the appropriations committee and the joint fiscal committee, through which state budget money flows.

He said the $25 million that Spaulding cites now is a familiar figure, but the immediacy of it is a new thing. Westman said when the state colleges came to the Senate Appropriations Committee in early March, before the pandemic was declared an emergency and meetings still happened in person, the ask was for $25 million over five years.

At the time, Westman remembers, the state colleges “had a $3 million hole.” Granted, that was before the pandemic added the $5.6 million in refunds for students, but still, Westman says, “In a short period of time we went from, ‘we need $25 million over five years” to ‘bail us out now.’”

Westman think the Legislature has some leverage. For one, he said the state colleges can’t “mothball” the three campuses without legislative cooperation. If the three campuses close, he said, then all of the budgetary weight — which encompasses things like teacher retirements, debt service and closing down the facilities — is going to fall on a smaller base at Castleton, Community College of Vermont, “and what’s left of VTC.”

“If the Legislature says no to those fixed costs, then Castleton’s going down, they’re all going down. This is the end of the whole system,” he said.

Westman stressed he’s not calling for that scenario; that’s just “the reality of the dollars.”

According to Westman, there may be some negotiating power within the Joint Fiscal Committee, made up of five senators and five representatives. One of the House members is Bill Lippert, who is also a state college trustee.

That’s the committee that accepts all federal grants, which includes the $2.2 trillion federal CARES Act money, about $1.2 billion of which is earmarked for Vermont. Of that, $6.5 million is intended for higher education, but Westman thinks there might be room for negotiation.

The state colleges are close to Westman’s heart, especially Johnson, from which he graduated in 1982. He said to get the full scope of his story, you have to go back to 1930, when his grandmother, living in Greensboro on the family farm, received some money from a relative in California. She used it to attend Johnson, taking the train there on Monday and back on Friday and working the farm on the weekends. She graduated in 1932 with a teaching degree.

Fast-forward 50 years, and Westman, a few months after graduating, attended his first alumni dinner. His date: his grandmother.

He said his college experience was similar: string together enough savings to attend Johnson, and then come home every day to work on the family farm, this time in Cambridge.

“My life would have been very different had I not gone to Johnson. I would have been home on the farm, in a business that was going down, not due to my parents, but due to the agriculture industry as a whole,” Westman said. “I never could have put the package together to go to school, or done the things I’ve done, without Johnson being where it was.”

Bernie and Scott

Some of Vermont’s top elected officials also weighed in on Spaulding’s plan.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders issued a statement Monday, saying that “delaying the decision is an important step forward.”

“We need the time to have a statewide discussion which includes all of the stakeholders. Unfortunately, that kind of discussion cannot take place in the middle of a pandemic and stay-at-home practices,” Sanders said.”

“Our job in the immediate future will be to think creatively about how we can support higher education in Vermont and the communities where the state college campuses are located. And while Vermont is particularly hard hit, we are not alone in this crisis facing higher education. Colleges in states all over the country are suffering and the federal government is going to have to play a much more active role in supporting these vital institutions. As a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Education, I intend to play an active role in that process.”

At his thrice-weekly press conference Monday, Gov. Phil Scott said the pandemic has exacerbated an already tenuous situation for the state colleges. He said that, despite Spaulding’s surprise recommendation, the chancellor has approached the Legislature and governors “many times over the years to advocate for more money.”

“So, in some respects, we should have seen this coming. Many of us did,” Scott said. “I’ve been trying to put more money in the state colleges over the past few years but, obviously, it isn’t enough.”

Still, Scott said he thought it was “a little swift, in some respects,” to have the chancellor announce his recommendation on a Friday and call for a vote just three days later.

Scott said the pandemic also offers “an opportunity at this point in time to rethink our education system in its entirety.” He called his broad view one of “cradle to career,” one that he envisions encompassing higher learning as well as early childhood education.

“In this pandemic, in these unusual times, this may be the opportunity for us to get creative and develop the best education system possible, the best system possibly in the country, maybe the world,” Scott said. “We’re so small and unique and nimble.”

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