MONTPELIER — On March 20 — a full month before Vermont State Colleges (VSC) Chancellor Jeb Spaulding planned to make a recommendation to close down Northern Vermont University (NVU) and the Randolph campus of the Vermont Technical College, he wrote an urgent letter to Gov. Phil Scott about how the Coronavirus pandemic was bearing down on the already troubled finances of the state college system.
An announcement on April 17 about the likely closure of the three campuses was made on a Friday before a planned Monday vote by the VSC Board of Trustees — giving the public very little time to respond.
Protest ensued from across Vermont and the VSC Board of Trustees held off on voting on April 20, as planned, and, on April 29, Spaulding withdrew the recommendation amid outcry across the state.
The March 20 letter marked at its top Privileged and Confidential, was obtained from VSC General Counsel Sophie Zdatny on Wednesday in a follow-up to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) records request seeking to find out who knew what, and when, about the rapidly worsening fiscal crisis which led to Spaulding’s April 17 recommendation to shutter the three residential campuses.
Spaulding announced his plan to step down on Wednesday; Zdatny was announced as interim chancellor by the board.
The letter Spaulding sent the governor was titled: Financial Impact of COVID-19 on the Vermont State Colleges System.
He said he wanted to be sure top state leaders were aware of how dire the situation was, and to find out how much state and federal aid the VSCS may be able to obtain – warning that “significant and painful actions,” would be soon necessary if the system did not receive a fast infusion of public funding.
In his warning bell more than a month ago, Spaulding said there may be one or more recissions necessary due to the worsening fiscal picture for the state college system. He lauded staff and faculty at the campuses across Vermont for helping students to deal with having to quickly leave their college campuses and move to remote learning with little time to prepare.
The $30 million appropriation the VSCS system survives on is not enough, Spaulding said, but said it was the largest block of money the state college system counts on for non-operating revenue.
It was estimated that another $25 million is needed to keep the three campuses alive in the coming year, and in the letter, Spaulding cautioned declines in revenues in the $6-12 million range are looming given the pandemic and fears about lost enrollment and other expenses.
In addition to Gov. Scott, the private letter also went out to Sen. Tim Ashe, Senate Pro Tem, Rep. Mitzi Johnson, Speaker of the House, Sen. Jane Kitchel, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and to Rep. Kitty Toll, Chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
Spaulding wrote Scott to alert him to the “rapidly intensifying” situation which he said was putting significant, sudden strain on the VSC’s coffers. He asked for a meeting to address “the immediate and evolving situation.”
He noted that the Coronavirus pandemic crisis was tanking the already fragile state college system’s finances quickly.
Spaulding said in the letter he did not know how the VSC would be able to recover from the lost revenue of more than $5.6 million in refunded room and board fees going out the door, to say nothing of additional losses stemming from the forced shut-down of in-person learning on campuses across the state colleges system, which also includes the Community College of Vermont and Castleton University.
The March 20 letter also stressed the likelihood that some students may end up demanding tuition refunds as well, “although we do not believe that step is warranted,” he said, because faculty across the system quickly pivoted to remote instruction.
In the letter, Spaulding warned the governor that the hole the state colleges were looking at appeared to be heading toward a minimum of $5 million, but it could be double that, as much as $10 million. He warned the system’s reserves would be drained by the end of 2020.
Spaulding warned about the enrollment impacts of the situation making a very bad financial picture worse.
The loss stemming from the residential campuses’ has the ability to jeopardize the entire state college system’s solvency, including the Community College of Vermont, Spaulding warned Gov. Scott more than a month ago.
The newspaper filed a records request seeking emails first between all Northeast Kingdom legislators and Spaulding and members of the VSC board, but was rebuffed with demands for up-front payment of half of undetermined costs; the newspaper then sought to obtain records around the colleges’ fiscal crisis and plans to close three campuses that other media may have recently filed and had fulfilled.
Zdatny said she was “uncomfortable” allowing a news outlet to ride on the FOIA request of a rival media organization.
Secretary of State Jim Condos said a FOIA request fulfilled should be allowed to be disseminated to any subsequent seekers without cost, saying for the VSC to charge a second time for work already done to fulfill the sought public records request would be “double dipping.”
The newspaper sought a list of all records requests around the narrow subject of the three campus closures, and Zdatny provided that along with which were fulfilled and which were not due to staff time and potential expense.