Vermont lawmakers meet with education leaders amid state college system struggles

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A handful of Vermont lawmakers met with education leaders Wednesday to discuss a path forward for Vermont state colleges as they grapple with financial troubles and other issues worsened by COVID-19 pandemic.

There’s been a lot of discussion surrounding immediate concerns, such as what the Vermont state colleges are doing to house and instruct students during a pandemic, but educators are also keeping the spotlight on issues they feel have gone unaddresed for years, and telling the legislature it’s time to step up.

“The lack of state support has lead to our death by a thousand cuts, and that’s where we currently stand,” said Linda Olson, a longtime Castleton University professor. “We can no longer serve the public good without resources from the state, and trying to stay afloat through more cuts to staff and faculty is no longer feasible.”

Olson has taught at Castleton University for over two decades. She described how years of staffing cuts have stretched critical services thin.

“We have seen cuts in the wellness centers across the system, despite the fact that our students have higher rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation then ever before,” Olson said. “Each campus has weathered multiple financial storms, and each time the decision has been made to cut or not replace staff and faculty.”

Olson said a Labor Task Force made up of various union members from across the state colleges system will be proposing solutions to longstanding staffing and demographic issues next Thursday at a staff town hall meeting. There will be a particular focus on reconfiguring adminstration across the system.

VSCS Chancellor Sophie Zdatny signaled a willingness to act sooner rather than later.

“Our hope is to use this current crisis to transform and transition Vermont state colleges for the future to set us up better,” Zdatny said. “I think change needed to happen sooner, but change is difficult especially in higher education, where change doesnt move swiftly.”

With a $30 million deficit in the system, Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe (D/P) said the legislature will have a lot to consider.

“We’re coming back to the ‘cyber’ Statehouse on August 25 to continue the state’s budget, and we know that all levels of education starting with pre-K all the way through higher education are in a turbulent stage because of COVID, and this will all inform our work,” Ashe said.

Prior to COVID-19, the Board of Trustees was evaluating the financial impacts of declining enrollment at Vermont state colleges. Zdatny said the pandemic and its financial impacts have accelerated the timeline in which tough decisions need to be made.

“We’ve had various task forces that have been working from Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College, and we have a system-wide task force looking at system wide issues,” Zdatny said. “We will also be working with the Legislature closely – they have a select committee created to look at the future of public higher education in Vermont, with a particular focus on state colleges.”

Vermont state colleges received $35 million in federal coronavirus relief, and while Zdatny said that was greatly appreciated, there’s some issues it can’t help address.

“That money has strings attached to it, we have to use it for costs and expenses related to COVID,” Zdatny said. “We can’t use it to replace lost revenue, for example, so it is very important we continue to have conversations with the Legislature for additional funding from the general fund that we could use to address other gaps we have in our financial situation.”

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