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Vt. small colleges face big challenges

Faced with declining enrollments and rising costs, it’s a tough time for the country’s small independent colleges, with the financial squeeze on schools more acute in New England and Vermont.

The latest casualty is Green Mountain College. The Poultney liberal arts college announced this week it would close its doors at the end of the spring semester.

But GMC is not alone.

Goddard College in Plainfield and College of St. Joseph in Rutland are in jeopardy of closing. Both schools have been placed on accreditation probation by the New England Commission of Higher Education.

Time is running out for College of St. Joseph. The four-year college has until April 1 to present new evidence to show it is on sound financial ground to meet the required accreditation standards.

If the school fails to shore up its finances by then, the school will lose its accreditation at the end of August.

CSJ President Jennifer Scott said the accreditation issue is solely financial and not about academic quality.

“Since June we have built a plan that will stabilize the institution and we are working that plan diligently every day and haven’t deviated from the plan,” said Scott, who took over as president in June. “In fact, we are sticking with our plan regardless of this new information from our creditors. We are still working our plan because we are making real and significant progress with our plan.”

Scott said the college has accelerated its efforts in pursuing a partnership with another institution or join a consortium as a way to share resources and save money.

Scott expressed confidence when asked whether the college will be able to meet its April 1 deadline. “That is certainly our expectation,” she said.

She stressed the support the college has received from the community as well as the commitment from the faculty and staff to CSJ’s future.

“So there is no way we are giving up,” Scott said.

She said the college does not have a lot of debt. “The larger concern is the limits to our endowment,” she said.

The school found itself in a financial bind when it depleted most of its $5 million endowment in a failed attempt to obtain certification several years ago for a physician’s assistant program.

The school’s financial predicament has impacted efforts to attract and retain students. Scott said the school has been “very transparent” with existing students and prospective students about the school’s circumstances.

She said the school has “an obligation to be upfront and transparent with students and also help them understand there is risk to coming here and clear about what the risks are and what they are not.”

CSJ has 227 students and just under 100 full- and part-time faculty and staff.

Goddard College

Goddard College was placed on accreditation probation for up to two years in November for failing to meet the requirements on finance and governance.

Goddard President Bernard Bull said the college is working on reducing its operational expenses so expenses align with tuition revenue.

“If we have fewer students, we have to be able to live within our means,” Bull said. “So that’s a significant part of the effort.”

The college is also focused on making sure it has a fully staffed admissions team, he said.

To meet the NECHE governance standards, the college moved to stabilize leadership positions that were vacant or filled on an interim basis and gave the board of trustees greater oversight.

Bull also said the school has been aggressive in its fundraising activities.

“We have a long, proud list of alumni and friends of the college and others who really resonate with our social justice mission and our unique approach to higher education,” he said.

That approach includes no letter grades. Students help create their own course of study. Goddard is also what’s known as a low-residency school, meaning students do the bulk of their studies at home and spend 10 days on campus twice a year.

As a result, Goddard’s student makeup is different than a traditional college.

“The majority of students we serve are not looking for that traditional residential (education),” Bull said. “We have lots of working adults, people with families. We do have people in their twenties as well but they’re looking for something where they don’t live on campus.”

Based on its historical data, Goddard’s budget is based on an annual enrollment of 375 students.

Bull said his goal is to err on the side of caution and budget accordingly.

“My goal is to not just to deal with this immediate situation and navigate the immediate financial concerns but to really set Goddard up so that doesn’t run into these perpetually,” he said.

Asked whether Goddard will survive, Bull said while the school faces “a serious situation” with no guarantees, he remains hopeful.

“I see many ways that not only can we survive but thrive in the future,” he said. “It’s just a matter of whether we effectively execute on one or more of those plans.”

Numbers game

Barbara Brittingham, president of the New England Commission on Higher Education, one of the regional accrediting commissions around the country, said the issue for small colleges in particular is demographics.

Unlike many larger colleges and universities which have a more diverse student base and graduate programs, many smaller colleges are dependent on recent high school graduates, Brittingham said.

She said that 18-year-old demographic is decreasing around the country but more so in New England and the Upper Midwest.

“One of the very big challenges after the Great Recession started in 2008, people had fewer babies in general,” she said.

Brittingham said that means in a few years there will be a more severe decline in the college-age population.

She said many students who opt to attend small colleges do so because they are small offering a more intimate environment.

Impact

The closure of the state’s small colleges also has an economic component.

The Association of Vermont Independent Colleges points out that its member colleges teach 16,000 students, employ 4,300 faculty and staff and contribute $1.1 billion a year in spending, including $484 million in salaries.

AVIC President Susan Stitely said many of the private colleges in the state offer unique and creative programs.

“We do have unique colleges that have really unique niches that are very attractive to people outside the state,” Stitely said. “A lot of out-of-state students come to Vermont. In fact, we’re one of the key reasons people, young people, move to the state.”

AVIC doesn’t offer financial assistance to colleges but does work with colleges on cost-saving programs including health care, life and disability insurance, and joint-employer retirement plans.

If a school closes, AVIC works with schools to preserve and secure students’ academic records.

The organization also has a semester exchange program which allows students to attend another AVIC member college for one semester at the same tuition rate as their enrolled school.

Sterling College

While many small colleges struggle against demographic and financial headwinds, schools like Sterling College in Craftsbury have adapted to the changing times.

Most schools are heavily dependent on tuition and fees as the major source of revenue. That still holds true for Sterling College but the school, which emphasizes environmental studies, is not dependent on tuition alone.

“One of the areas of success the college has had has been in having a more diverse set of resources as far as operational income goes,” said President Matthew Derr. “We’ve tried to sort of expand beyond a high level of tuition dependence and to really increase the emphasis on philanthropy and raising funds that support the college and its mission.”

Derr said the college has created auxiliary programs to attract students like continuing education programs.

He said while a typical small college relies on tuition for 85 to 95 percent of its revenue, at Sterling that number is about 75 percent.

“About a quarter of our operational revenue comes from other sources and that gives us a little more flexibility,” Derr said.

He said the college has also kept a keen eye on its long-term debt.”Our debt is very small and the service on that debt is the equivalent of about one position at the college,” he said.

Sterling is indeed a small college with 110 students and 47 employees, including 18 faculty.

When it comes to philanthropy, Sterling recently received a $2.5 million grant from the NoVo Foundation.

Sterling is partnering with The Berry Center to launch The Wendell Berry Farming Program of Sterling College in Henry County, Kentucky. The program is a no-tuition undergraduate sustainable agriculture degree program that honors farmer and environmental activist Wendell Berry. The $2.5 million grant and match will provide $3.5 million to fund the program through 2024.

Before embarking on a new program, Derr said the college makes sure the program is fully funded.

“There’s an ethic at Sterling and a strategy that I think has served us well in some pretty difficult times for small colleges and in particular small colleges in Vermont,” Derr said, “to ensure that we have the resources in place before we bring the innovation on board.”

The state’s colleges are not immune either from changes in the industry. Castleton University last year eliminated 30 positions, 10 through layoffs, to deal with declining enrollment. Also last year, Johnson State College and Lyndon State College merged to form Northern Vermont University.

GMC

In announcing it would close after the spring semester, GMC cited a decline in enrollment and rising costs. Attempts to secure additional financing or a partner institution that would allow the college to remain in operation beyond May failed to materialize.

GMC reached an arrangement with Prescott College in Arizona that will give GMC students the option — known as a teach-out agreement — to complete their degrees. Prescott will also house the school’s academic records and create an entity that will carry on the Green Mountain College name. Both schools share a similar program of environmental studies.

There are several other teach-out agreements in place for GMC students including three here in Vermont: Sterling College, Marlboro College and Castleton University.

“If we could not remain here in Poultney, our goals had been to find an institution that had already committed to a sustainability curriculum, had a similar small college feel, would continue the Green Mountain legacy, be committed to ensuring that there would be little or no direct financial or academic impact on our students and, despite the notable change in geography and in climate, would provide for as smooth of a transition as possible for students,” GMC President Robert Allen said in the closing announcement.

Financially, Brittingham said it’s more difficult for small colleges to stay above water when enrollments don’t keep pace with expenses.

And the forecast is not encouraging, with more schools expected to close their doors or forced to merge with other institutions.

The New England Commission on Higher Education lists on its website nearly 100 schools that have closed or merged since the 1970s.

In the last 20 years several Vermont colleges have closed or merged: Burlington College (2016), Woodbury College merged with Champlain College (2008), Trinity College (2000). Prior to that Vermont College merged with Norwich University (1972); Windham College closed in 1978.

According to Inside Higher Ed, a 2016 report from Parthenon-EY estimates that nearly 800 private colleges with fewer than 1,000 students or less will close or merge within the next 10 to 15 years.

Nationwide, the report found that the 18-to-22-year-old college-age population is declining and is accelerating at a faster pace in New England. That scenario is not expected to change until 2033.

Moody’s Investors Services forecasts private college closure rates, which stand at 11 per year, will increase.

The New England Commission on Higher Education accredits 211 institutions in New England and 11 American-style colleges in other countries.

The Association of Vermont Independent Colleges includes Bennington College, Champlain College, College of St. Joseph, Goddard College, Landmark College, Marlboro College, Middlebury College, Norwich University, St. Michael’s College, School for International Training, Southern Vermont College, Sterling College, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Vermont Law School.

Editor’s note: Beginning next weekend, The Times Argus and Rutland Herald will begin publishing a regular column by contributing college officials, “Vermont by Degrees,” which explores the challenges facing higher education institutions across the state.


rlayman / Robert Layman / Staff Photo  

brook, roaring

Large ice chunks are frozen to the banks of Roaring Brook in Wallingford, seen here Friday morning. For more details about local flooding impact, see story on Page A2.


rlayman / Robert Layman / Staff Photo  

Sidewalk cleanup

Rob Heir cleans up ice in front of the Wallingford Meat Locker on Friday morning. Heir, who smokes and processes meat there, said ice from Roaring Brook, which runs behind the business on Florence Avenue, jammed on a railroad bridge Thursday afternoon.


Local
Legislature 2019
Lawmakers weigh new gun bills

George Till says a firearms bill he introduced this session is more like a health bill.

Till, a Democratic state representative from Jericho, is the lead sponsor of one of several proposed gun laws before the General Assembly following last year’s landmark gun control legislation.

Some bills seek further restrictions while others seek to ease them.

Till is in the latter category, legalizing the use of suppressors by hunters.

“There are only eight states that prohibit it,” he said. “When you’re hunting, you don’t wear ear protection, so it’s more critical there than anywhere.”

Suppressors make guns quieter, Till said, though not nearly to the degree frequently portrayed in movies.

“It’s about 25 to 30 decibels,” he said of the reduction — gunshots have volumes of 140 decibels or more. “It’s significant, but it’s not huge.”

Till said longtime hunters frequently suffer severe hearing loss and that use of suppressors could help prevent. He said an alternate version of the bill was being introduced framing it as a health measure rather than a firearms regulation.

Another bill in the House, introduced by Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, would make it a crime for anyone under a relief from abuse order to possess a firearm, requiring them to relinquish any firearms until the order is no longer in effect.

Several more proposals are in the Senate. Four of the bills — including the first three introduced in the Senate — are aimed at easing the ban passed last year on high-capacity magazines. All were introduced by Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans.

“The magazine ban was completely unconstitutional, and I hope the court overturns it,” Rodgers said. “In the meantime, there are hundreds of thousands of dollars of economic impacts that have been turned away from Vermont in the form of sport-shooting events. That’s ridiculous. The sport shooters have never caused any problems.”

Rodgers said he doesn’t expect to get enough of his colleagues on board to repeal the ban outright, but he does hope to at allow such magazines to be brought in for shooting competitions or alter the definition to allow for 30-round magazines.

“There’s a whole lot of firearms that come with a standard magazine of 20 or 30 rounds,” he said. “There’s about 60 firearms that have been banned in Vermont because that’s what they have.”

Rodgers said he expects Vermonters will buy those guns in New Hampshire, depriving Vermont gun dealers of sales.

Another bill from Rodgers would allow existing large-capacity magazines to be left to immediate family members in wills.

“I would like to hand these down to the same people I can give a gun or sell a gun to without a background check — immediate family,” he said.

Rodgers said that if his bills don’t make it out of committee, he will do his best to attach them as amendments to other bills.

The other bills currently in the Senate are from Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden County, both aimed at creating more restrictions. One would outlaw 3-D printing of firearms; the other would establish a 48-hour waiting period before the purchase of a firearm as well as a requirement that firearms be securely stored.

“These are new parts of the discussion since last year, but safe storage has been around for a while, as have waiting periods,” he said. “I would say 3-D printers are new because of that emerging technology.”

Baruth said that areas with waiting periods have shown a statistically significant reduction in suicides. He said that while he did not know of any research into the effectiveness of safe storage requirements by themselves, it was one of several measures associated with a decrease in gun violence when used in concert. By example, he pointed to a recent alleged school shooting plot in Middlebury.

“Their plan involved acquiring the guns of a relative,” he said. “That’s the concern.”

Baruth called his colleagues’ attitude toward further gun legislation “a mixed bag.”

“There are people who would prefer never to hear the word ‘firearm’ in a piece of legislation again,” he said. “There are others who consider what we did last year a good step but a first step. I’m trying to continue a conversation that’s making us a safer state, and I don’t think anything we’ve done has interfered with anybody’s ability to hunt.”

gordon.dritschilo

@rutlandherald.com


News
Church defends hiring pastor without background check

CASTLETON — In light of media attention, a local church is standing by its decision to hire its current pastor, who has a criminal record, without first conducting a background check.

John Longaker, 63, became the pastor of the Fellowship Bible Church in 2010.

According to a 1998 article published in The Morning Call, a daily newspaper based in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in January of that year Longaker pleaded guilty in Bucks County (Pennsylvania) Court to corruption of a minor and endangering the welfare of a child. He was sentenced to serve 11½ to 23 months in county prison.

According to the Allentown paper, Longaker had been working as a teacher at Faith Baptist Christian School in Sellersville, Pennsylvania. He was accused of having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old student there. When he was first charged, he faced the two misdemeanors he ultimately pleaded guilty to, plus two felony sex charges — involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and aggravated indecent assault. The paper reported that because the alleged sexually activity did not occur until after the student turned 16, which at the time was age of consent in Pennsylvania, the two felonies were dropped.

In an interview on Wednesday at the church, Longaker denied ever having had sex with the girl, saying that in hindsight he should not have pleaded guilty to the two misdemeanors. He spent 11½ months in prison and the rest of the sentence on probation. He was never required to register as a sex offender.

Kelly Haines, the then-14-year-old in question, has been vocal about what happened between her and Longaker and says his refusal to take responsibility for his actions is a problem.

On Jan. 17, the Burlington Free Press posted to its website a piece on Longaker’s past and how he came to be pastor at the church. The article was published some months after a blogger spoke to Haines and published her story.

Choosing a pastor

“My wife and I moved up here in 2001 and started coming to the church shortly after that,” Longaker told the Herald. “I was just a regular attender. It got to the point where the pastor at the time needed somebody to teach adult Sunday school so he asked me to do it, and I started teaching adult Sunday School. That was probably late 2002.”

He said at that time, the church’s governing structure featured an advisory board consisting of three or four people who would advise the pastor, and when necessary conduct the hiring process for a new one. Longaker said he joined the advisory board sometime around 2005.

Don Wood, an elder of the Fellowship Bible Church, said Wednesday, while sitting for the interview with Longaker, that the church is non-denominational, meaning it operates independently of any outside governing structure and has to find its own pastors. It doesn’t get them assigned as with other denominations.

Wood said the search committee had whittled the list of candidates for pastor down to a handful of people before three or four members of the congregation suggested, independently of one another, that Longaker be chosen.

“We didn’t think it was necessary to do a background check on John,” Wood said. “Had we not known him, yes, most definitely.”

Wood said he’s not sure that knowing of Longaker’s court record would have changed their minds.

“As far as I’m concerned, had I known what John’s background was, as a committee we’d have gone and talked to him about it, and he would’ve explained the situation as he has on numerous occasions to the elders and to the church, and we then would have to make a decision as to whether his background was detrimental to the church,” Wood said. “And I can’t speak for anybody else, but I don’t believe it would have made a difference to me.”

Longaker said he refused the offer twice.

“The third time seemed different to me,” he said. “For the first time, I felt that God was nudging me to do this, and so I went home and talked to my wife about it. She begged me not to do it. She’s a pastor’s daughter and knew that aspect of it. We prayed about it and she started to come around to the possibility, but she pretty much insisted she didn’t want me to talk to the church about what happened 20 years ago … 20 years ago as of then.”

He said his wife didn’t want him disclosing his past because they feared it would cause problems for their son, who was attending a Christian school at the time.

“I became pastor in 2010. Shortly after that, two or three, they were all women, had found this out and they came to talk to me about it, and I explained the situation to them and they were fine with it,” Longaker said. “I’m ashamed of the fact that I have a criminal record and I will take that shame to my grave, so I didn’t want to talk about it, it didn’t matter what job I had.”

Addressing congregation

Longaker said after the blog post about him was published, he told the congregation about it.

“I think it was the first Sunday in October, I told them,” he said. “It was after my sermon. I told them I wanted to speak to them after the sermon, so I spoke to them and told them. I didn’t go into detail, I gave them the bare bones of it, told them what the charges were, and if they wanted to talk to me about it in detail they could. And several people did. And I went into detail with them about what happened and what didn’t happen.”

As far as he’s aware, only one family left the church because of his history.

“This particular family, the mother was the one who went on Facebook about me and started all the Facebook thing around here on me, so they naturally left the church, and I think there are two other people who stopped coming, but they haven’t officially left. I still have hope that they’ll both come back,” he said.

Wood said church attendance ebbs and flows with the seasons, but between 80 and 100 people usually come out for Sunday services.

Longaker said those who do work with children through the church have had background checks done on them.

“As far as background checks are concerned, the implication on social media is that our children are open to anybody,” he said. “The reality is, I think with the exception of maybe one, our Sunday school teachers all have had background checks. They’ve not had background checks from us. Most of them work in a public school so they’ve had their background checks then. So they’ve had background checks.”

Longaker said with few exceptions he’s been careful not to counsel teenagers or woman alone.

“With the exception of one, I talked to one teenager, she’s 13, but her grandmother was out in the hallway. That has always been my policy. I don’t counsel women alone, unless they happen to pop in with an emergency, then I’ll counsel women alone. I’m not going through that again, so I make it a point not to do it,” he said.

He and Wood said they plan to install cameras in the pastor’s office and in other places around the church.

Longaker said he’s offered to resign several times now to spare the church embarrassment, since he holds no hope for his own reputation.

“You have to understand, he has been forgiven by somebody, none of us can forgive him, he has to be forgiven by God only,” Wood said. “God has already forgiven him. God appointed him to be here, and I said this, and I’ll say it again, God is the only one who’s going to remove him. He’ll do it in a variety of ways if he so feels that’s the way to go.”

Her story

Haines said Wednesday in a phone interview that five or six years ago she searched Longaker’s name on Google and discovered he was now the pastor at the Fellowship Bible Church.

“I was extremely distraught, I knew what kind of person he was, what he was convicted of, and I just didn’t feel that being a pastor was an appropriate position for him,” she said. “So I reached out to the pastor before him and asked for some members I could send the Morning Call articles to, and he gave me 10 people within the church, and I sent them the articles with a very short message that said ‘FYI, wasn’t sure if you were aware of this,’ with my name, my email, and my contact information. That was it.”

She said with the exception of one email whose authorship she wasn’t able to verify, she didn’t hear back from anyone in the church. Haines said the email was “nasty,” and contained personal information about her she doesn’t think anyone but Longaker, or someone he’d spoken to about her, would’ve known.

Wood said Thursday he’s aware of the email, but doesn’t know anyone in the congregation who might’ve sent it.

“At this point, I just want the community to be aware,” Haines said. “I don’t care about him or his church or what happens to it, I’m worried these people are going to go into this church and are unaware there is a convicted pastor at the pulpit.”

Haines said she had seen Longaker at Faith Baptist Christian School in her seventh year there, but didn’t get to know him until she was in the ninth grade. She said she’d seen him act as a mentor and counselor to others and approached him about her eating disorder and self-harm issues. She said he would touch her on non-sexual places like her back, but after she turned 16 they began having sexual contact.

Their relationship essentially ended when she went to college and he left the state for another job. In the summer after her first year away, she and Longaker agreed to meet for a week.

“I went out for a week to visit him, and while I was out there I noticed his behavior was very similar with the girls he was teaching, as it was with me, and so I talked to him about it. He said I was overreacting, that there was nothing, and I just knew it wasn’t,” she said. “... so I basically just told him that if he doesn’t want to be with me anymore, I mean, he’s been with me for so long I kind of looked at him like a father figure, and if he didn’t want to be with me anymore, then I didn’t want to live.”

She then disclosed the relationship with Longaker to a friend, who reported it to their church, which is how it came to the attention of police.

According to an affidavit of probable cause filed by Detective Robert A. Tegge Jr., of the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office, investigators spoke to three pastors who said Longaker admitted to the three of them, after being confronted, that he’d had sexual contact with the girl.

Pleading guilty

Longaker said he pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charges because he was told he’d likely only serve probation if he did. He feared getting a more severe sentence if he went to trial and lost.

“I lost a year with my son and my wife,” he said. “Nobody seems to talk about that.”

Haines said prosecutors had their own reasons for agreeing to the plea deal.

“The DA felt I was an unstable witness,” Haines said. “I was the only witness at the time, and putting me into a trial setting and having me get up on the stand because I was the only witness, to them was risky at best. We were approached with a plea deal and we accepted that plea deal as a way of eliminating any trial-type issues.”

2005 incident

Haines said in 2005 she’d just had her second child and was pregnant with her third. Between this and the post-traumatic stress disorder she says she suffers from being sexually abused, she’d been suffering paranoid delusions that Longaker was stalking her.

“I lived in this fear that I was being followed,” she said. “I will tell you it was an irrational fear. At the time it didn’t seem like that. It was a paranoid problem of the PTSD from the abuse and now I have my own little girls, and I was afraid I couldn’t protect them. I didn’t know what to do, I just wanted to be protected. So I went to the police and said, ‘Hey this guy’s following me around somehow.’”

She was charged with filing a false police report and pleaded guilty to it. Haines said she agreed to enter counseling, and any record of the case was expunged.

Longaker corroborated this, saying he proved to police through his EZ Pass records he’d never been near Haines. He said he’s had no contact with her since seeing her in court in 1998.

What happens now

“I believe his entire congregation has been given half truths and lies and are being fed his rhetoric, and Don Wood’s rhetoric,” Haines said. “If they really cared enough about this man to find out who he really is, somebody in that church would’ve reached out to me and said can we talk. And that has never happened. They don’t care about my side, they don’t care about listening to me or hearing it from me. They are taking his narrative.”

She said beside the blogs and the Free Press article, The Washington Post has also reached out to her for a story she says it’s doing on the larger issue of sexual abuse and church.

Longaker said the publicity has hurt him, his wife and their son psychologically. He said that for now he plans to remain at his post.

“I can’t tell you what I’m going to do in another year or two, but I’m going to stay,” he said. He said if he does leave, some arrangement will be made so the church won’t be without a pastor.

keith.whitcomb

@rutlandherald.com


Spotlight

In the news

Online sources reported Friday night that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ announcement that he was running for president again was “imminent.” A4


Photo Courtesy Jay Peak Resort/  

The Pump House Water Park is a year round draw for Jay Peak.


Photo Provided by the Vt. Dept of Environmental Conservation  

Recyclable materials in the process of being sorted.


JLowe / Photo by Michael Moran  

Looking across the renovated second-floor galleries in the Hood Museum of Art, featuring installations of contemporary African art, Melanesian art, and contemporary Aboriginal Australian art.