Gov to SGA Prez: Don’t expect much change in VSC funding this year

SGA President Shane Bouthillette

Johnson State College SGA President Shane Bouthillette led a group of VSC students to the office of Jeb Spaulding, Governor Shumlin’s secretary of administration, Tuesday, Nov. 13, where they were told by Spaulding and the governor that the VSC – Johnson, Lyndon, Castleton, Vermont Tech and Community College of Vermont – would not be seeing any meaningful increase in funding this January.

Bouthillette’s visit reflects the ongoing problem facing the VSC: inadequate fiscal support from the Legislature. State funding for higher education in Vermont has seen a steady decline since the early 1980s, when public funding accounted for about half of VSC revenues.

Now state appropriations account for less than 20 percent, which places Vermont at the bottom of the 50 states in terms of state support for its public colleges.

“Jeb Spaulding certainly talks a lot,” Bouthillette said. “I think he spent a little too much time trying to explain to us the history of higher education funding, the details of something we’re all pretty well versed on at this point. We kind of had to interject and cut him off a couple of times to ask a question or make a statement.”

Bouthillette said that Spaulding maintained an entrenched position throughout the meeting.

“The only thing that cut him off was when I asked about splitting,” said Bouthillette, referring to the way appropriations for higher education are doled out. “We said, ‘the VSC has 8,000 Vermont students and UVM has about 3,000 Vermont students, yet they have nearly double what we do in funding.’ He didn’t have a good response for why that was.”

Out of an overall appropriation last year of approximately $84 million, the five Vermont State Colleges received collectively $24.2 million, VSAC $18.36 million, and UVM $40.75 million, just under half the total appropriation although the VSC serves nearly three times as many Vermonters a year as does UVM.

Another contentious issue with the current distribution formula is the relatively large percentage appropriated every year to fund VSAC, whose mission has been drastically altered following recent federal legislation. “I did bring [VSAC] up,” Bouthillette said. “Jeb [Spaulding] definitely agreed that the federal law has basically crippled it,” Bouthillette said.

The meeting was the brainchild of Bouthillette. Having learned lessons in last year’s campaign which culminated in January with a protest in Montpelier, Bouthillette sought to improve the odds of success for this year’s effort to reform higher education funding. First he sought guidance. State Senator Rich Westman, re-elected to represent Lamoille County for a second term Nov. 6, spoke prior to his re-election with Bouthillette.

“He [Bouthillette] sat down a long time with me,” Westman said. “We went down to the Hub and we had a beer…We talked about, you know, he like everybody else made the statement, ‘Well, we’ll be in Montpelier in January,’ and I kind of jumped on him. The way the process works, the most important time to make a play to increase your position in the budget is when the governor puts together his budget.”

Westman chose not to speculate on the chances the VSC delegation would be successful on its visit to the capitol. “Well, if they sit home, there’s no chance; is there?” said Westman. “At least if they go down before the governor presents the budget, at least they got a chance to make an argument to somebody who might be able to change it, but if they wait ‘til January they got no chance.”

Westman spoke again with Bouthillette on election Tuesday. The senator was driving into Johnson when he noticed Bouthillette and a group of young men in the back of a pickup truck waving signs encouraging voters to elect Westman for senate.

“So, I stopped and talked, and he [Bouthillette] told me that a group of them are meeting with Jeb Spaulding, the secretary of administration on the [Dec.] 13,” said Westman just prior to the meeting.

The idea of trying to approach the governor had been kicking around in Bouthillette’s mind. “I brought it up at the first VSCSA meeting and it was met with a warm reception, but all the other VSC schools seemed rather content with me taking on the brunt of it, which is why I sought out Senator Westman for advice,” Bouthillette said.

While Westman supports Bouthillette’s attempts to engage, he doesn’t fully support this particular battle. “When I hear about state college students wanting to fight UVM students and fight VSAC, which is funding mostly poor kids, and I hear that you all want to fight against each other over a dwindling pie anyway, I look at it and go, ‘Oh my god. That’s crazy,’” said Westman.

Westman did, however, provide Bouthillette with a roadmap for his endeavor. “The commissioner of finance is an agent of the administration, and the secretary of the administration is the direct boss of the commissioner of finance, and Jeb Spaulding is the secretary of the administration,” said Westman.

In other words, the best way to get to Shumlin and his budget was to go through Spaulding.

“I contacted the governor’s office, his scheduler,” said Bouthillette. “She gave us Jeb [Spaulding] and we had about 10 minutes with the governor.” The 10 minutes were not fruitful for Bouthillette and his mission. “He [Shumlin] wants to see the VSC and higher education become more efficient as far as operating costs.”

Despite negligible results from that Statehouse meeting, Bouthillette remains optimistic about the prospects for change in the long run. “It definitely gives me hope for the future,” said Bouthillette. “I plan on staying in Vermont. Hopefully I can get a job in the political field. I would like to work on this issue for years to come.”

Given the continued resistance to higher education funding reform in Montpelier, Bouthillette may well get his wish.