Last week, officials at the College of St. Joseph learned the college could lose its accreditation as early as August, but Jennifer Scott, president of the college, said they haven’t given up.
“Me and my team are undeterred,” Scott said on Wednesday. “We are pursuing every available option to us. We’ve just accelerated our timeline.”
The school’s accreditation was placed on probation in August by the New England Commission of Higher Education. Scott said CSJ officials believed at the time they would have two years to improve their finances.
On Friday, CSJ received written notification that it has until April 1 to produce “material and substantial new evidence” of its ability to achieve compliance with the standard for a college’s financial resources as established by NECHE.
On Nov. 15, NECHE voted to withdraw the accreditation of CSJ effective Aug. 31, 2019 "with the understanding that the College will cease instruction as of the end of the Spring 2019 semester. The accreditation is continued until August 31, 2019 for the sole purpose of allowing students to complete their degree from an accredited institution," according to a news release from NECHE.
According to Scott, the biggest concern from NECHE is the size of CSJ’s endowment. In late April, then-president Larry Jensen said $500,000 remained of what had been a $5 million endowment. Most of the money was spent covering operating losses and during the attempted launch of a degree program that was expected to bring in new students.
If CSJ doesn’t provide satisfactory evidence, NECHE will move to withdraw accreditation by Aug. 31.
Scott said staff at CSJ was still confident in their three-phase financial plan, which she said is focused on a balanced budget. Scott described the phases as “stabilize, rebuild, grow.”
The fall semester is done at CSJ but Scott said students have been made aware of the latest action by NECHE. Scott said administrators at the college are developing a plan to let applying students know that CSJ’s future is uncertain.
She also pointed out an agreement between CSJ and Castleton University. If the college loses its accreditation, Castleton would accept CSJ students with the intent of seeing them through to the completion of their degrees.
“Castleton will take all of our currently enrolled students into the same or similar degree programs at the same tuition rate that they pay here,” Scott said.
The program would be available to those students for up to four years, which should be enough time for any student to finish their degree.
The college is currently accredited and remains eligible for financial aid for its students.
Scott said that the NECHE was not challenging the efficacy of the school’s educational programs.
But CSJ officials will still need to focus on financial resources to prepare for their presentation to NECHE. The primary effort will be to develop affiliations with other colleges to find ways share resources to the colleges’ mutual benefit.
“The reality that we’re facing is, we’re not the only small school that is struggling or even facing potential closure. It wasn’t even the case in the spring. There are many schools that are in our exact situation,” Scott said.
Students became aware of the financial challenges for CSJ in the spring, resulting in several emotional meetings during which college officials shared the depth of the problem. The CSJ board of trustees voted 13-3 in May to remain open.
“We’re not just fighting for ourselves but we’re fighting for a way forward that shows other schools how to do it and we’re not giving up on that. I think it would be important for someone to be able to make a statement on how concerning this is, that this is happening to small schools. I mean, who do small schools serve? They serve students who are not typically pursued or supported by other schools. It keeps opportunity and diversity of choice alive,” she said.
However, closure would have an impact locally as well with the loss of about 100 jobs. The college also supports six sports teams.
Staff at NECHE are attending a conference in Boston this week and couldn’t be reached Wednesday for comment.
Scott acknowledged that with the end of the year approaching and a deadline of April 1, CSJ staff didn’t have much time.
“Nope, it’s not. But it’s what we have and it’s what we’ll be working with,” she said.
KILLINGTON — The town is researching a possible rental property registration program aimed at handling rentals that go through sites like Airbnb.
The Select Board talked about the program at its Dec. 3 meeting, directing Town Manager Chet Hagenbarth to further research the proposal.
Hagenbarth said Wednesday the town has had some issues with people renting out residential properties to scores of people, advertising the rentals on websites and apps like Airbnb and Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO).
According to Hagenbarth, the town’s zoning bylaws limit residential occupancy to two people per bedroom. Some properties are being listed on rental sites advertising that they can hold far more than the two-person-per-bedroom limit.
Hagenbarth said the town has had zoning-related issues with these properties. At least one involved an overloaded septic system.
Hagenbarth said it’s not clear yet what form the new program will take, be it an ordinance or a registration program.
“It will be specific to the issue we’re dealing with,” he said.
At the Dec. 3 meeting, Hagenbarth told the board he’s run the proposal by the town’s attorney, Kevin Brown, who said the town has the authority to create such a program but would need to adjust some of the draft language.
Hagenbarth said Wednesday that he’s in the process of getting more information by looking at what other towns have done since the issue has come up in other places.
Selectwoman Patty McGrath said at the meeting the program isn’t being sought to punish any one person, but is being done so that all will be treated evenly. She said these rental operations need to be held to the same standards.
The town was recently in a dispute with a property owner on Estabrook Road who is advertising with VRBO a home with between four and five beds that would sleep 28. Town bylaws only allow two people per bed. The home, at the time, was permitted with three bedrooms. Zoning Administrator Richard Horner issued a notice of violation to the owner, who appealed it, only to have the appeal ultimately denied by the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
Hagenbarth said if the new program is created it would likely apply to all rental properties. He said the main concern is septic systems being overloaded at these residential homes being run as if they were commercial hotels. He said commercial operations are already regulated.
This year’s biggest budget increase comes from the police department, which aims to hire another officer.
The Select Board on Tuesday nearly finalized the town’s budget that will go before voters in March. All that remained for the board to do was finalize the general budget, which is awaiting figures on Social Security and insurance costs. Without those factored in, the town is looking to spend 1.66 percent more than it did last year for a total budget of $2,680,164.
The $431,616 police budget the board approved marks an increase of 15.75 percent over last year. It calls for the hiring of a new officer and associated equipment costs. The budget as it was initially proposed by the police committee was for $440,221, an increase of 18.06 percent. After some debate, the board opted to reduce the number of hours for a part-time officer. The budget passed 4-0. Board member Joe Denardo was absent.
Police Chief Ed Dumas said the second officer is needed because when someone has a day off, all calls to the department go to the State Police, who only respond if there’s an immediate emergency, leaving eight or nine calls for town police to follow-up with. Dumas said some of these cases, such as fraud, are more time consuming to investigate than others.
The department currently consists of Dumas; Captain Ted Washburn — who under this budget would be promoted to deputy chief; Officer Jim Gamble; School Resource Officer John Sly; and Lynette Gallipo, administrative assistant. According to the town’s website, board member John Paul Faignant is second constable.
Dumas said Washburn has taken on a number of responsibilities in the department, including writing grants.
“We had discussed going to one full-time officer rather than having a full-time officer and a part-time officer; an 18-percent increase in the budget is unacceptable in my world,” said Faignant.
He suggested adding the full-time position, removing the part-time officer job, and once the cruiser is paid off, revisiting adding the part-timer back.
Dumas said the problem with eliminating the part-time position is that the person who currently holds it is a fully certified police officer. If they stopped being one, they’d need to go through an onerous process of being recertified.
Faignant said a lower-certified officer, such as a constable, would be able to handle traffic issues, which is what many residents’ complaints have been about. Dumas said even so, any time a traffic stop turns into something more serious, the constable would have to summon an officer.
“Traffic enforcement is lagging in this town because officers are buried in calls and complaints that they are dealing with, which is taking them away from proactive policing, including traffic enforcement, because we don’t have enough help,” said board Chairman Joshua Terenzini, adding that he’d vote “no” on the police budget if it didn’t include a new full-time officer and the part-time position. “I think, loud and clear we’ve heard from people time and time again in this town that we have not enough police coverage.”
He said the increase in spending is high and that he’d normally balk at such a raise, but given the circumstances, he didn’t see another option.
The fire department’s budget was approved at $206,921, a 2.86-percent increase over the previous year. Fire Chief Frank Cioffi said this reflects a 3-percent increase in salaries and a number of maintenance-related items that couldn’t be deferred anymore.
The highway budget was down 2.82 percent, planning to spend $964,250 in the coming year. Road Commissioner Byron Hathaway said most line items are the same as they were last year, except for a 3-percent increase in labor costs.
The board didn’t approve the general budget, as it’s waiting on some final figures related to Social Security and healthcare costs. Excluding those elements, it’s up less than 1 percent at $920,101.
Terenzini said Wednesday the new numbers might add between $20,000 and $40,000 to the general budget.
Most of the general budget debate Tuesday revolved around the building maintenance fund, which pays for upgrades to the Town Hall. Terenzini said the next project to be done is renovating the town clerk and treasurer office to make it more secure and inviting for the public. The board ultimately opted to allot $65,000 for this work. It was initially proposed to add $75,000 this year and $75,000 the following year.
Recreation Director Mike Rowe presented a largely flat budget of $157,276, a 0.19-percent increase over last year.
CASTLETON — The town is in the midst of a legal dispute with the Lee Lodge #30 Free and Accepted Masons over the ownership of a stretch of land that could prevent the town from selling the “old fire station.”
On Oct. 25, a complaint and a summons was filed on behalf of the town regarding the unused building located at 39 Elm St. in Castleton, which was deeded to the town on Sept. 12, 1947, according to the documents.
“In 1985 or 1986,” Castleton asked the Lee Lodge if they would be willing to “convey a strip of land approximately four feet in width” that runs the length of the boundary line of the property to them, and the hand-off was allegedly certified in a deed dated Oct. 8, 1986, and recorded on Oct. 20, 1986, documents showed.
The town hired Courcelle Surveying Company to survey the lands at 39 Elm St., the “old fire station,” in preparation for selling the property. The survey was completed on Nov. 20, 2014, and identifies the boundary lines of town property, documents said.
But the Lee Lodge has asserted that the “so-called ‘Courcelle Survey’” is “wrong,” and began their fight to prevent the property from being sold, filing two separate liens in 2018.
The first lien for $250,000, filed Feb. 1, asserts that there was a breach of contract dated June 5, 1986, “in which the town would agree to plow the parking area,” according to the notice of lien filed by Lodge representative Graham Trudo.
The lodge filed a second lien on June 28 for the same amount regarding “a dispute over the scope of work,” and called for a new survey to be done.
In response, the town sought to restate their ownership of the “old fire station” and reaffirm that the Lee Lodge #30 Free and Accepted Masons of Castleton not have any current claim or assert any future claim to the property at 39 Elm St., as well as the ability to determine judgment for damages from preventing the town from selling the property by establishing the two liens.
On Nov. 30, Lee Lodge responded by saying that the 4-foot boundary belonged to the Lee Lodge, that the Courcelle survey was incorrect: 100 feet of land and 4 feet of extra land along Elm Street was recorded as having been sold or conveyed to the town, when the Courcelle Survey conducted in 2014 only showed the property covering 100.19 feet.
The Lee Lodge #30 then asked for a court order to stop the sale of the “old fire station at 39 Elm Street” until the property dispute could be straightened out.
In an interview on Friday, Town Manager Mike Jones said he wasn’t sure when any additional information would be available to the public regarding the acquisition of the property and gave “no comment” when asked whether the public had the right to know about the town’s attempt to sue to acquire the property.
Town legal counsel Lois V. Baldwin, of Vandenburg Law Office LLC, also offered “no comment” when asked about the status of the legal dispute.
“It was my own weakness and a blind loyalty to this man that led me to choose a path of darkness over light.”
Michael Cohen, former lawyer for President Donald Trump, who was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison for crimes that included arranging the payment of hush money during the presidential campaign. — A10
Proctor girls defeat defending D-IV champs MSJ in Wednesday’s basketball action. B1
Fly-over missions to look for marijuana crops in Vermont are ended, as police put focus on opioids. A2
Tucked away in the woods, the Red Clover Inn has been hosting jazz music played by Glendon Ingalls and the Red Clover Jazz Trio for years. 6-9 pm. Reservations recommended. Red Clover Inn, Woodward Rd,