The Vermont State Colleges system is still facing a significant fiscal crisis — a budget deficit of about $30 million in this coming fiscal year — in part because of the coronavirus pandemic, despite millions of dollars in emergency funding, Chancellor Sophie Zdatny told legislators Wednesday.
“It's possible it could be worse than that depending on what happens in the spring,” she said. When evaluating the situation and talking with the Legislature in May and June, the system was focused on what the fall would look like, she said.
“Now it's becoming apparent that the impact of the virus can also extend and disrupt the spring semester, as well," she said.
A task force has been created by the board of trustees to come up with ways to stabilize and modernize the state college system.
“Our hope is to use this current crisis to really transform and transition the Vermont State Colleges ... to set us up for the future,” she said.
The end of in-person instruction and the move to online learning amid the pandemic has taken a financial toll on the already struggling state college system, as it has on other private and public universities around the country. The system has other challenges, including a drop in the Northeast — and particularly in Vermont — in the number of high school graduates, low financial support from the state and competition from other schools.
The system has received about $35 million in federal coronavirus relief funding and $5 million from the Legislature in bridge funding, "for which we are very appreciative," Zdatny said. The federal relief funding cannot be used to replace lost revenue, she said.
VSC revenue comes from a state appropriation of approximately 18% historically, which is among the lowest in the country, and 80% or more from students through tuition, room and board and fees, she said.
In April, former Chancellor Jeb Spaulding proposed closing the two campuses of Northern Vermont University in Lyndon and Johnson and the technical college’s Randolph campus because of added financial troubles from the coronavirus pandemic. At the time, the four-college system was facing a deficit this school year of between $7 million and $10 million, including $5.6 million in refunds of room and board fees and moving to online learning.
After public outcry over his proposal, he withdrew it and then resigned. Zdatny, a six-year veteran with the organization, was appointed interim chancellor at the end of April and named chancellor in early July.