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Vermont State Colleges delay vote on closings

  • Ryan Montgomery, middle, talks with Vermont Technical College Farm Manager Stephanie Nault, left, as Hannah Roberts works in the farm’s milking parlor where 80 cows are milked twice a day, Saturday, April 18, 2020. Montgomery and Roberts are both students in the Two Plus Two program in which students earn a two-year associates degree in one of VTC’s agriculture programs, then will move on to complete a bachelors degree in animal science in two years at the University of Vermont. Montgomery said he had planned to earn a second associate’s degree at VTC before moving on to UVM, but with the possible closure would likely just finish the one semester he has remainig in his agribusiness management program. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/19/2020 8:10:25 PM
Modified: 4/20/2020 7:56:49 AM

WEST LEBANON — The Vermont State Colleges delayed a vote on plans to shutter three campuses and layoff hundreds of workers Sunday after the proposal faced backlash from Gov. Phil Scott, top lawmakers and alumni.

“I have listened to my colleagues on the Board and want to give them time to consider the very significant decisions we have to make,” Board of Trustees Chairman J. Churchill Hindes said in a statement.

But, he cautioned, postponing action “increases the profound financial risks” facing the state system of colleges and universities.

“Those risks grow daily,” Hindes said. “We simply do not have the funds to afford a protracted discussion and debate.”

The state college system announced plans last week to lay off 500 employees and close Northern Vermont University, which has campuses in Lyndon and Johnson.

The proposal also would consolidate Vermont Technical College into a single Williston campus, VtDigger reported.

The plan, which was met with shock and dismay within the White River Valley community, includes the shuttering of VTC’s 154-year-old Randolph Center campus.

Officials say the pandemic has forced the college system to refund $5.6 million in room and board for the spring semester. It is facing a deficit of as much as $10 million this fiscal year and as much as $12 million next year.

The state colleges’ board was scheduled to discuss the plan Monday and possibly take a vote. However, a coalition of Vermont policymakers, alumni and candidates for state office protested the move.

In a statement Sunday, Gov. Phil Scott said he doesn’t support the proposal announced by college officials Friday or “asking taxpayers to bail out a system that is no longer financially viable.”

“There is a far better, more positive path forward — including for the communities that rely on state college campuses to sustain their local economies — if we are creative and committed to the hard work ahead,” he said without saying what that path would entail.

Instead, Scott called on the Legislature to begin work on a statewide plan “to rethink, reform and strengthen the education system.”

Delaying would allow for time to determine the economic impact of the closings, develop a one-year “bridge budget” and convene a working group to look at the colleges’ future, according to a statement by Senate President Tim Ashe, D/P-Burlington, and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero.

“While we recognize change must come, an abrupt vote to close three campuses, with three days notice, without a public plan for what comes next for the students, faculty and staff, and the host communities is not appropriate, especially in this era of unprecedented unknowns,” they said.

Meanwhile, four former Northern Vermont University student government association presidents signed a letter Sunday calling on the board of trustees to “not be short-sighted” in their decision making.

“This is more than looking at a couple years of declining enrollment, it’s about preserving our educational institution for future generations of Vermonters,” they said.

The statement was backed up by one from Hartford native Jim Cantore, a 1986 graduate and Weather Channel meteorologist, who said the plan’s timing “couldn’t have been worse.”

Gubernatorial candidates also sounded off against the plans.

Rebecca Holcombe, the former secretary of education in Vermont, said the possible closures “are likely to further disadvantage regions that are already struggling.”

“This proposal has potentially devastating long-term impacts on post-secondary participation, particularly by working-class Vermonters, who may need to live at home or work part-time while attending school,” Holcombe, who lives in Norwich, said in a statement. “These are the very Vermonters we most need to guarantee the education that gives them access to jobs that pay good wages.”

Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman said the plans are “tremendously ill-timed” and “really go against what we’re trying to achieve.”

“Closing these institutions will not help young people stay in Vermont and gain the knowledge and skills they need to stay in the state and thrive,” he said during a press conference with legislators and union representatives Sunday afternoon.

Vermont writes checks for unemployment claims

Vermont issued $1,200 checks to more than 8,000 people this weekend as part of an effort to clear the state’s backlog of unemployment claims.

Gov. Phil Scott gave the Vermont Department of Labor until Saturday night to clear 34,000 unemployment insurance claims caught up in state’s antiquated processing system.

As of Sunday, nearly 32,000 claim issues had been cleared, the department said in a news release. The remaining claimants — 8,384 people — will have checks mailed to them Monday.

Shaheen, Hassan callfor housing aid

Housing assistance for America’s rural communities should be included in future COVID-19 stimulus bills, New Hampshire’s Senate delegation said Sunday.

In a letter to ranking members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, both Democrats, called for additional funding for the USDA’s Rural Rental Assistance Program.

The program reduces rent paid by low-income families who live in rural or farm labor housing financed by the USDA.

While roughly $3 billion in housing assistance was included in the bipartisan CARES Act, none of that was directed to the program, according to Shaheen and Hassan.

“All across the country, in both urban and rural areas, low-income households are struggling to afford essential payments as their incomes decline,” the senators wrote in a letter cosigned by 15 colleagues.

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, has “long fought for resources for rural housing” and will continue to do so while negotiating relief bills, spokesman David Carle said Sunday.

Three new deathsannounced in NH

New Hampshire officials announced 50 new positive tests of COVID-19 and three additional deaths Sunday, bringing the number of Granite Staters diagnosed with the virus to 1,392.

However, none of the new cases appear to come from Upper Valley, according to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services. Grafton County has seen 45 cases so far and Sullivan County has 10.

Most of those newly diagnosed live in the southern part of the state, with 17 new cases in Manchester, eight in Nashua and 13 in Rockingham County.

The county of residence is being determined for two new cases, officials said Sunday evening.

The death of three people, all over the age of 60, also was confirmed Sunday. Two were from Rockingham County while one was from Hillsborough County. So far, 41 Granite Staters have died of the virus.

Meanwhile, Vermont officials reported 10 new cases and no new deaths Sunday morning.

The Green Mountain State has seen 812 diagnosed with the novel coronavirus and 38 deaths.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.


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