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Officials Discuss Vermont State Colleges System Finances And Future

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The Vermont State College system faces a budget shortfall that could run between $30 and $46 million dollars in fiscal year 2021.  The Vermont Senate Pro Tem met this week with officials of the college system, which has 20 locations in 13 of the state’s 14 counties, for an update on actions being taken to address its future.
The Vermont State College system is composed of Castleton and Northern Vermont universities, Vermont Tech and the Community College of Vermont.  According to its 2018-2019 impact report more than 11,000 students attend the colleges. But it ranks 49th in the country in state funding per student. The state provides 18 percent of its revenue and 82 percent comes from tuition, room and board.

In April, then-Chancellor Jeb Spaulding resigned after proposing a controversial reorganization plan that called for closing three campuses. At the time he said a system-wide deficit between $7 and $10 million dollars and coronavirus pandemic losses were pushing the system to the point of insolvency.

On Wednesday, Vermont Pro Tem Democrat/Progressive Tim Ashe held a Zoom meeting with college officials and other state senators as the system’s anticipated deficit rises.  Chancellor Sophie Zdatny said $5 million in state emergency bridge funding in March and April helped stabilize the system but there is still a fiscal crisis driven by a number of factors.  “COVID is one of them but also you know the inadequate amount of revenue that we receive that's been a challenge as well. So we were already facing structural challenges prior to COVID. COVID has accelerated those challenges and really put a focus on what the challenges are.”

Vermont State Colleges received $7.5 million in Coronavirus Relief Fund dollars, which Zdatny says helped. But she notes there are guidelines constricting use of the money.  “The first amount we received was essential in helping us deal with the refund of room and board that we made to students back in March. And we did receive significant additional funding for CRF funds through to December. That does come with strings attached from the US Treasury. We're trying to be as creative as we can within the guidelines. But for right now, it's important that people understand that CRF dollars are different from general appropriation dollars and we currently cannot use CRF funds to replace lost revenue. So right now we're looking at a approximately $30 million dollar deficit for this coming fiscal year. It's possible it could be worse than that depending on what happens in the spring.”

Rutland Republican Senator Brian Collamore tasked the college system to do more to expand its student base.  "To me, the almost most important challenge are the demographics. And it would be one thing I think, if indeed, the demographic trajectory was beginning to turn the other way. But in the next 10 years it's probably going to be even worse in terms of high school and college age students being available from Vermont to go to our higher learning institutions. So I think it points out the need for getting outside of Vermont and finding those students in other states and making the State College system more attractive to them.”

Vermont Senate Pro Tem Ashe fielded questions submitted by the public on how the college system is planning to respond to the fiscal and COVID challenges.
The legislature returns to session on August 25th.


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