The ghost of Jeb Spaulding Returns - John Walters

Somewhere, Jeb Spaulding is saying “I told you so.”

The former chancellor of the Vermont State College System fell on his professional sword last spring by unveiling a plan to decimate VSCS in order to save it. In the ensuing uproar, he resigned.

Well, the new leadership has totted up the cost of saving the system — and it’s one hell of a price tag. On Tuesday, Spaulding’s successor Sophie Zdatny (pronounced just like it’s spelled) told the House Appropriations Committee that the state needs to pour another $203 million into the system over the next six fiscal years.

That’s on top of VSCS’ base appropriation of $30.5 million a year.

And that’s in addition to round after round of projected cost-cutting that would mean significant reductions at all VSCS campuses.

None of which would begin to address the system’s $150 million in deferred maintenance. Well, if VSCS sells or demolishes buildings in the downsizing process, that cost would go down somewhat.

All of this is necessary, Zdatny said, to return the system to fiscal sustainability. (Her presentation can be downloaded from the committee’s website.)

There’s one significant difference between Zdatny’s plan and Spaulding’s. The latter called for the closure of both Northern Vermont University campuses plus the Randolph campus of Vermont Technical College. Zdatny would keep all the system’s campuses open — but with a substantially reduced footprint at each location.

In order to follow through on the plan, the system would need $51 million on top of the $30.5 million base for fiscal year 2022. The additional need would decrease over time, from $51M in FY22 to $18M in FY27. After that, VSCS could maintain operations on the $30.5 million base.

How? By slashing $5 million a year off expenses in each of the next six years.

Seems as though Jeb had a point after all.

So, how did we get here? Decades of underfunding by the state. High tuition that hurts recruitment and retention. A declining college-age population. A $20 million hit to the bottom line due to Covid-19. Not to mention, Zdatny explained, that “the whole of higher education is going through a sea change” with more competition, fewer students, and fewer dollars to go around.

A bit of good news: VSCS can draw some revenue from other sources, mainly federal. That reduces its FY22 ask from $81M to a mere $67.4M — the base appropriation of $30.5M plus an additional $36.9M from the state. And to follow through on the restructuring, the state would have to invest many millions above the base in each of the following five fiscal years.

Compare that to Gov. Phil Scott’s budget proposal, which gives VSCS a one-time boost of $20M on top of the base, for a total of $50.5M. That’s still $16.9M shy of Zdatny’s ask. And Scott isn’t promising any above-base funding after FY22.

“The numbers are starting to sink in, but it’s a lot of money,” said Rep. Jim Harrison after the presentation. He wondered if the six-year plan would result in a thriving system, or simply a surviving one.

Tuesday’s hearing was only the first step in the process. “We will continue to have this discussion,” said Rep. Mary Hooper, the new chair of House Appropriations. “I’m thinking of $200 million over six years and the desire to support our colleges, students, and communities.

“But what would that crowd out? It’s a challenging conversation.”

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  • David Flemming
    published this page in Commentary 2021-02-04 15:20:42 -0500