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State colleges dodge closure; changes coming

MONTPELIER — Public furor over a plan announced last Friday by Jeb Spaulding, chancellor of the Vermont State College System, to close three state colleges by the fall prompted him to withdraw the proposal on Wednesday.
“It was pretty drastic proposal given that it would close half the system,” State Sen. Ruth Hardy said before Spaulding’s change of heart was announced. 
Like most other members of the Addison County Legislative delegation, Hardy received a torrent of calls and emails criticizing Spaulding’s proposal to close Northern Vermont University, which combined the former state colleges in Lyndon and Johnson, as well as the Vermont Technical College’s home campus in Randolph. The Middlebury Democrat said she got calls from all over the state, and she received more complaints than she had over the slow response of the Department of Labor to fill unemployment claims.
“Our board of trustees heard loud and clear from thousands of students, employees, communities, and the state’s elected leadership and determined that my recommendations would be damaging on many levels and would not be acceptable. I accept their judgment,” Spaulding said in a Wednesday statement. “We will be taking additional time to work with elected, campus, and community leaders to redesign the Vermont State Colleges System to be sustainable. That means we do not plan to close campuses this fall.”
The Independent’s poll of Addison County’s nine state representatives and two state senators taken before Spaulding’s retreat found all in agreement that the timeline for closing the colleges was too quick and the state needed to fund those schools for at least another 12-18 months.
Rep. Mari Cordes, D-Lincoln, for instance, spoke for many when she said that the COVID-19 pandemic had laid bare fundamental financial difficulties faced by the Vermont State College Systems (VSCS).
“The state college system was not healthy before COVID, and it’s not surprising that it is faltering dangerously now,” she said. “Vermont has been at the bottom of the national list in state funding for public college systems for too long.”
Sen. Chris Bray pointed out that closing the schools would have a “near-permanent” impact, and said it should not be made on the basis of the temporary COVID-19 crisis.
“We need the full cost-benefit analysis to have a rational discussion of the value of operating the current system,” Bray said.
The Bristol Democrat argued that if it cost $30 million a year to run the schools but they produced perhaps $50 million in economic benefit through wages spent in Vermont, then they should be seen as providing a net positive for the state economy.
A couple of local lawmakers pointed to analysis by legislative economist Tom Kavet, who said that not only would 500 jobs be lost if the state colleges were closed, but that as many as three times that number of other Vermont jobs could be lost because of the lost multiplier effect of spending from those employed at the colleges.
“It’s clear that the results could be devastating to these already challenged communities,” Rep. Robin Scheu, D-Middlebury, said. 
Middlebury Democrat and state Rep. Amy Sheldon said some damage to the state colleges may have already occurred because Spaulding’s proposal came as some students were making final decisions about their college plans for next year.
“The chancellor may have accelerated the loss of students into the system,” Sheldon said.
Rep. Caleb Elder, D-Starksboro, was among those who thought that federal stimulus money coming to Vermont for pandemic economic relief might be a source for funds to keep the entire VSCS afloat in the coming year.
But Rep. Peter Conlon acknowledged that major change was coming to the state colleges.
“I think there is no doubt that any future option will include a smaller state college system,” the Cornwall Democrat said.
Sen. Hardy held out the hope for realigning Vermont’s higher education system so that the University of Vermont and maybe the Community College of Vermont could work more closely with the VSCS.
“This has to be about more than just the state colleges,” she said.
Spaulding on Wednesday stressed that the VSCS is not sustainable.
“It cannot continue for long,” he said in a statement. “Through whatever process we define a more workable solution to this problem, it will surely be disruptive to the VSC’s current mix of four colleges and universities and five campuses.” 

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