Editor’s note: This commentary is by Deb Billado, chairwoman of the Vermont GOP.
On Friday, April 17, Vermont State College System Chancellor Jeb Spaulding shocked many Vermonters when he announced that within three days the VSC trustees would vote to close Northern Vermont University campuses in Johnson and Lyndon and would shutter Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center, consolidating the programs there into its Williston location, a facility without adequate housing for students.
This insensitive announcement was made at one of the most stressful times in Vermont’s history. What would lead Chancellor Spaulding to do such a thing? Blame was put on the Covid-19 pandemic and past underfunding of the higher education system. I guess the crisis was too opportune for him to pass up, but it seems he miscalculated the public sentiment. The backlash was quick and strong and on April 19 the board postponed consideration of the move for a week, and then the following day the chancellor withdrew the proposal from consideration.
Imagine being a family in central Vermont whose child, because of financial necessity, is commuting from home to VTC to study nursing, has been hit with the loss of their job due to the Covid-19 virus, is wondering how they will cope with their loss of income, then in the midst of that, hears the news that VTC will be closed, leaving a long commute or a need to find an expensive boarding somewhere in the Williston area?
It did not have to be this way. This proposal would cost hundreds of jobs and destroy the economic vibrancy of our rural town centers in struggling areas of our state. The VSC system may be on the brink of insolvency if nothing is done, but considering the stress Vermonters have been experiencing the last two months, shouldn’t Chancellor Spaulding have considered all other avenues in solving the matter before doing what he did? Now he has withdrawn the closing to consider other avenues. Why didn’t he do that before doing what he did when he made this public pronouncement? By his action he has put a possible solution further out of reach since the uncertainty spawned by his announcement will negatively influence any who are currently enrolled or might be considering these schools. All avenues should have been explored before he dropped this damaging message on Vermonters.
VSC is among the lowest state supported state college school systems in the entire country. Why is this and who is responsible? The underfunding began in the period where politician Spaulding was a Democratic operative in Vermont and when Democrats controlled the purse strings. They sent most of available funds to other areas, and in fact K-12 education spending is more than we do on transportation, economic development, agriculture, public safety, and even our pension liabilities. This excessive spending, which has increased by several hundred percent since the year 2000, has been accompanied by a declining student population and mediocre results.
Jeb Spaulding and his Democrat colleagues are the ones responsible for that. After all, their campaigns rely heavily on donations from the Vermont NEA, which exerts pressure on them when it comes to making policy. Imagine if we had dedicated just a fraction of the Education Fund to higher education years back instead of having it all go to the K-12 behemoth!
While there is no doubt that UVM has incurred some remarkably high unexpected costs as the result of the shutdown caused by the pandemic, the comparative harm to the Vermont State Colleges, threatened with closing, must weigh in favor of the latter. I understand UVM has an endowment fund of $550,000,000, and while some say it cannot be spent for this, I would hope they could find a legal way in such a serious emergency to cover such needed costs. There is an old saying that “where there is a will, there is a way.”
Gov. Phil Scott and legislative leaders have come out against this campus closing proposal, but this all begs the question: how did we get here? The perfect storm brought about with the Covid-19 crisis, low Vermont birth rate (Vermont has had unrestricted abortions since 1972 resulting in over 100,000 deaths) and exodus of young Vermonters has led to a shortage of 30,000 high school students over the last 25 years. This demographic crisis continues with a yearly loss of 1,000 students and has exposed the decades of Democrat maladministration of educational funding that occurred. Spaulding blames that underfunding but fails to say it was his Democratic Party that was responsible
In a comment to the VTDigger article I linked at the beginning, Chet Greenwood, pointed to the cause and the solution for this and other Vermont fiscal problems: “Jeb has been in state politics since 1985. Vermont has been losing ground financially in both our VSC system and our pension system for those years. Time to change strategy.”
Please consider running for office or supporting those who do. For if we do not, it is hard to imagine how bad our future will be.