Vermont’s legislators are back in Montpelier to finish what COVID-19 interrupted this spring, which is an end to the session, and putting together a budget for the remainder of the fiscal year. It’s being done under the glare of the Nov. 3 general election, making many of the decisions more political than they would ordinarily be.

Chief among these hard choices will be how legislators deal with the $20 million to $30 million the Vermont State Colleges System needs to avoid a potential dismantling of its system. Gov. Phil Scott did not provide funding for the system in the state budget he presented legislators, although it’s a political given that between the governor and the legislature the money will be found. It’s just unclear from where. That’s a debate that will expose just how difficult it is to establish priorities, an exercise the governor wanted to share with legislators.

The hope had been that Congress would move to allow states to spend the stimulus money in ways not directly tied to the damage done by the pandemic. That has not happened; it’s far from certain that when Congress returns it will pass another stimulus bill, or will make the necessary changes that would allow states to redshift their funding priorities.

It’s that uncertainty that puts our legislators, and the governor, in a difficult position. There is no such thing as spare cash. Finding the $20 million to $30 million the college system needs means taking from somewhere else. And that only satisfies the fiscal year we’re in. Next year’s budget will be even more difficult.

But it’s more than just an issue of money.

The Vermont States Colleges System has been a troubled vessel for years, [with the exception of the Vermont Community College system.] The schools have suffered from declines in enrollment, high tuition costs and $50 million in deferred maintenance costs. Former VSC Chancellor Jeb Spaulding made this crystal clear when he made his ill-fated proposal to shutter the Northern Vermont University campuses in Lyndon and Johnson, and the Vermont Technical College campus in Randolph.

His proposal brought the issue to its unavoidable crux. Either the legislature would commit to supportive appropriation levels or the colleges would have to be rejiggered to meet lower enrollments and to consider a 21st century remake of what higher education needs to look like in Vermont.

Several committees have been employed to explore other alternatives; one will become public in October, the other in April. Perhaps someone will come up with a proposal that threads the various needles in play, but it’s difficult to see how the next fiscal year will be any easier to navigate than what we’re navigating now. The pandemic has made things more difficult for higher ed going forward, not easier.

We needn’t expect legislators or the governor to do much more than scrounge for the necessary funds to keep the system going this year. But when the election passes and the next session begins in January, we can expect a difficult debate over the future of the VSC system.

It’s overdue.

by Emerson Lynn

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