Linda Olson, a Castleton University professor and American Federation of Teachers official, was spot on recently when she expressed thankfulness for the $89 million being budgeted for the Vermont State College System, and fear for what may follow.

Of the $89 million, $59 million is one time money, courtesy of the federal government’s role in helping schools recover from Covid-19. “I think it’s great that we’re getting so much money in this transition process,” Ms. Olson said. “But I just worry about what’s going to happen five years down the line, because we can’t make it without more money.”

Ms. Olson’s concern is something we all should share. She’s also been crystal clear as to the remedy. She would prefer the basic integrity of the system to remain in place, with the Legislature [and the governor] stepping in each year to meet whatever funding needs the state college system requires.

At a minimum that would mean the Legislature would need to appropriate about 50 percent more than it does currently. That’s being conservative. And short term. Clearly, we’ve entered a place where the amount of money we spend — on almost anything — is circulating in a strange orbit. An extra $30 million or so sounds like chump change these days. Spend it and they will come has become our special field of dreams.

If it were being spent on the extension of broadband, or similar ventures, the return on investment could be plotted in a way we’d understand. But spending upwards of $100 million on the state college system and then upping the annual appropriation to almost $50 million each year thereafter begs the question; for what?

No one is quite sure. The special legislative panel formed to deal with the state college system has made its recommendations; unification of Northern Vermont University, Vermont Technical College and Castleton University into a single entity [with all campuses remaining open], cutting structural deficits over the next five years and figuring out ways to increase revenues.

But no one believes, with any level of certainty, that the recommendations meet the test of what is required. The obstacles are as much political as they are practical. Ask former VSC chancellor Jeb Spaulding, who basically was forced to resign because he had the temerity to suggest closing some of the campuses down.

And what did the legislative committee recommend? Not closing any campuses and spending whatever money is necessary to keep things afloat. Mr. Spaulding could have made that recommendation with ease and kept his job. He just didn’t think the governor and the Legislature would come up with $89 million in one time money plus agree to a 50 percent increase in state funding year after year after year. In fact, he was told as much.

What Mr. Spaulding knew was that the system had too much bricks and mortar and too few students. The bricks and mortar was also in poor shape — upwards of $50 million in deferred maintenance. The state’s student population continues to shrink in number. The academic ranking of Northern Vermont University and Castleton are closer to the low end of the scale, not the top. To cap it off, the tuition for VSC campuses is sky high.

So when the experts recommend that the answer is to consolidate, cut $25 million in costs, and then up the state appropriation by 50 percent, the Olsons of the system have every right to worry about their future. How does that address the system’s physical presence and its costs, how does it address too few students, how does it address academic quality, and how does it address the need to lower tuition?

It doesn’t. Ms. Olson knows this. She also knows that if all the campuses are to be kept intact, with each pursuing the same academic missions, that the only means of long-term survival is having a Legislature willing to spend whatever it takes to keep the doors open. That means a 50 percent increase in the short term and more as the costs rise.

This has the sound of an expensive can being kicked down the road.

by Emerson Lynn

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