As the Vermont State College System considers recommendations for a massive institutional overhaul to right its financial ship and make high-quality education more affordable and accessible for Vermonters, a group of VSC employees has been floating an alternative plan that would reach similar goals but through different means.

Last year, decades of underfunding combined with increasing costs and a declining population finally boiled over at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic when VSC schools were forced to reimburse more than $5 million in room and board, tipping the entire system into financial crisis.

In response, then-chancellor Jeb Spaulding proposed closing three state colleges campuses — Northern Vermont University at Johnson and Lyndon, and Vermont Technical College at Randolph — impacting about 3,000 students and putting almost 500 people out of work. The proposal drew fierce backlash, causing Spaulding to resign and former VSC general counsel Sophie Zdatny to be appointed as his replacement.

Over the summer, the Legislature approved around $30 million in bridge funding to keep the system afloat while VSC developed a plan to put itself on a more financially sustainable path.

Late last year, a legislative select committee released a report composed by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, offering a variety of recommendations that included unifying Castleton University, NVU and VTC under a common accreditation. The Community College of Vermont, having a more viable business model than its VSC peers, would remain a separate entity.

The report also calls on the state provide to increase its annual contribution to the system by more than 50%, from $30 million to $47.5 million. In addition, it asks for $25 million in one-time transitional funding in the next fiscal year, with similar commitments — decreasing by about $5 million annually — over next five years.

While state statue declares that the state colleges “shall (be) supported in whole or in substantial part with State funds,” that has not been the case for decades. Currently, the state contribution to the VSC budget is 17.5%, ranking 49th out of 50 states for appropriations, and making in-state tuition rates some of the highest in the country.

As the VSC Board of Trustees begins to consider these recommendations — the board will discuss the next steps at its regular meeting Friday, and a second report from the select committee is due out Feb. 12 — another report released by VSC employees has gotten less attention.

Helen Mango is a science professor at Castleton University and member of the VSC Labor Task Force, which is composed of staff and faculty union leadership from throughout the system.

According to documents provided by Mango, “The Task Force was created to give voice to the experience and ideas of faculty and staff — the very people who are in the most student-facing positions within the VSC.”

Mango said that while the report, which was composed at no cost and released in November, has been given to the board of trustees, the chancellor and the select committee, it has been overshadowed by the NCHEMS report.

“We have come up with this proposal that we feel is a rational and reasonable and data-based piece of work,” Mango said, noting that both reports “agree in a number of important ways.”

Like the NCHEMS report, the LTF report proposes “rethinking the whole system.” Specifically, it calls for a streamlining of administrative positions, which Mango called “top heavy.”

“We have many more upper-level administrators than we need for a system of our size,” she said. “If any cuts need to be made now, it should be at the top, not at the bottom.”

To that end, the report looks at ways to cut down on redundancies.

“We have a chief academic officer for each of the campuses. Why do we also have a chief academic officer at the chancellor’s office? There are no students there,” she said.

The LTF report also points to the chancellor’s office in Montpelier — which costs $180,000 in rent annually — as an unnecessary expense, and recommends relocating it to one of the VSC campuses.

Mango noted that faculty and staff have undergone cuts of between 20% and 30% over the last 10 years.

“We strongly believe that after years and years of cuts to faculty and staff, that’s not where the cuts can come from anymore. It’s down to the bone and then some,” she said. “The quality of what we can offer to our students suffers because of that.”

The report projects that the system could save $7 million by streamlining some upper level administration positions.

It also calls for an overhaul of VSC’s governance system, recommending a “shared-governance model.”

Mango called current structure “top down” and a “closed loop,” with decisions being made without sufficient input from faculty, staff or students. She advocated broadening involvement to include all of the stakeholders in the system.

The LTF also suggests restricting Vermont Student Assistance Corporation aid to in-state colleges. According to the report, VSAC currently sends around $5 million out of state annually. That’s money, the report argues, that should remain at home.

“We should not be sending tax dollars out of state with this unrestricted portability,” Mango said.

The report stated that only 12 other states, including the District of Columbia, send grant aid out of state. Between 2008 and 2018, Vermont sent between 23% and 31% of aid out of state. The next closest state is Arizona at 8.6%.

“We’re not stopping students from studying out of state; it’s just that we don’t feel that Vermont tax dollars should do that in an unrestricted fashion,” she said.

On the question of creating a unified system with a common accreditation, the report acknowledges the benefits.

“If we do an accreditation across the system, that would make a lot more sense. Then we would be more in tune with each other. It’d be a lot easier for students,” Mango said,

She called it “a consolidation of administration” not identity, saying, “nobody wants to graduate from Vermont State University.”

The LTF report also pushed back against the familiar narrative that declining enrollment is due to a shrinking student population, stating that cost remains the biggest obstacle for students going on to college in Vermont.

According to the report, there was “no statistically significant relationship” between the number of college-aged Vermonters (ages 18-24) and the headcount at VSC schools. However, it did find a “very strong relationship between the tuition charged and headcounts.”

Mango called it a question of equity.

“Family income should not be what’s preventing a student who wants to go to college from going to college,” she said.

Zdatny, who is a member of the select committee, said she sees “a lot of overlap between what is in the select committee report and what is in the Labor Task Force report.”

She said administrators have been “in close contact with union leadership as they’ve been working on their proposal.”

“I have met with the faculty assemblies for all of the colleges. I meet with the union leadership monthly,” she said, adding that unionized employees were part of an internal task force created last summer and a faculty member sits on the select committee.

She said the strategic priorities identified by the board of trustees — affordability, accessibility, quality of programs and relevance of programs — “are consistent with a lot of what is in the union’s proposal.”

Regarding administrative streamlining, Zdatny said pursuing a common accreditation would eliminate some redundancies. She pointed to the creation of Northern Vermont University in 2018, which merged Johnson State College and Lyndon State College.

“When you combine institutions … you immediately get some savings from high-level administration, because you don’t need two presidents and two provosts and two deans of students,” she said.

Zdatny agreed any cuts to staff should be shared across all levels. She noted the NCHEMS report suggested the system still has too many employees compared to the number of students it serves.

“Around 63% of our expenses come from salary and benefits,” she said. “So if you’re really going to manage the cost, inevitably, it’s going to result in impacts on personnel.”

Ultimately, Zdatny cautioned that moving forward with any plans would be contingent on getting the necessary funding from the Legislature.

“We couldn’t accomplish what’s proposed in the select committee report or what’s proposed in the (Labor Task Force) proposal if we don’t receive funding from the Legislature …,” she said. “If we don’t receive the needed funding, then … the range of options is shrinks dramatically.”

Castleton University interim-President Jonathan Spiro declined to comment on the specifics of either plan, stating that his job is “to execute the wishes of the trustees.”

He did, however, agree with the need for more state funding.

“Frankly, the Legislature kind of reneged on their end of the deal,” he said. “When the Legislature created the Vermont State College System, they guaranteed to fund us wholly, or as much as possible. I mean, even a generous interpretation of that would mean that at least 50% of our funding should come from the state.”

CU currently receives 10% of its funding from the state.

“I’m not angry. I’m not bitter. I’m just saying, we’re in … an untenable situation, and both these task forces, to their credit, are trying to address that,” he said.

When considering, what a unified system would mean for CU’s brand and identity, Spiro expressed a desire to preserve as much of it as possible.

“I think that Rutland County has a very positive view of Castleton University and understands that we contribute so much to the culture, education and economy of the region,” he said. “So, understandably, people would, I think, very much want to preserve it as much as possible.”

Spiro added that, while much of the current conversation about VSC’s future is concerned with making itself more accessible to Vermonters, CU also wants to continue to attract students from outside the state.

“We’ve really spent a lot of time, effort and money on building up the Castleton brand, and we know that we attract a lot of out-of-state and international students because of that brand,” he said, explaining that those students often remain in state after graduating. “We think it’s a great thing that we bring in out of staters. … We know that by bringing in international students and out-of-state students, we are directly impacting the economy, the culture, the future of Vermont.”

jim.sabataso

@rutlandherald.com

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