MONTPELIER – The Vermont Legislature advanced a state budget that includes an additional $56.1 million for the Vermont State Colleges System.
State colleges have been under financial struggle that was worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted former Chancellor Jeb Spaulding to bring forth an unpopular recommendation to close three campuses.
The legislative process of determining how to save state colleges in the short-term began after that recommendation. While the big-picture questions still linger, current VSCS Chancellor Sophie Zdatny said it allows for solid financial footing in the short term.
“This was the amount we had sought from the Legislature, this was the ask that we had so we are very happy they were able to meet our request for this fiscal year,” Zdatny said.
The additional funding includes $30 million for annual base funding, $23.8 million for emergency bridge funding to stabilize finances, and $2.3 million in COVID-19 relief funds.
This measure had been one of several top budget priorities for the Legislature, and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson explained how it came together.
“The number that we arrived at had to do with an independent financial assessment of the state college system, an assessment by our state treasurer as well, and conversations with the state college system themselves,” Johnson said.
The additional funding now heads to the desk of Gov. Phil Scott as part of next year’s fiscal budget. He signaled his support of the overall budget in a press conference on Friday.
The months ahead will bring tough questions surrounding state colleges’ long-term financial viability under the current structure.
“It gives us a breathing space for this year, but I anticipate we will be seeking additional bridge funding for next,” Zdatny said. We have to let the various process currently going on play out, and one of those is the Legislative Select Committee and their final report won’t be out until April of next year.”
Speaker Johnson offered her perspective, suggesting there will be difficult conversations about how the Legislature can most effectively aid the state college system.
“I think we have to take a really good look at how best to serve students, not necessarily with loyalty to the institutions, but with loyalty to the Vermonters,” Johnson said. “How best can we create opportunities for Vermonters that want access to higher education and build a better workforce and opportunity ladder across the state for people?”