Lamoille County Senator Rich Westman: state colleges are essential but money doesn’t grow on trees


Wayne Fawbush

Senator Rich Westman.

Sen. Richard Westman has been in the Legislature for most of his life, and he still doesn’t think money grows on trees. Growing up on a dairy farm in Cambridge, Westman said the discussion naturally turned to the cost of things. Though the farm did well when he was young, money was always tight, and any time property taxes rose on the farm’s few hundred acres, it would be a topic of discussion at the family dinner table. Westman’s mother worked part time doing books at the town clerk’s office, so politics, of a sort, came into his life early. “It almost never seemed like politics, because it was what you talked about,” Westman said. “It was just natural discussion.”
Westman graduated from Johnson State College in 1982, and later the same year, he was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives, where he served until 2009. After a short stint as Vermont’s tax commissioner, Westman was elected to the Senate in 2010 as the representative for Lamoille county. He is running unopposed in this year’s election.
In an interview on Sept. 29, the 61 year old Lamoille county Republican said that when he graduated from Johnson, his parents expected him to go back to work on his family’s farm, which he did. But, Westman said, “I couldn’t imagine spending twelve months a year with my parents.” So he ran for the Legislature, giving himself a few months per year away from the farm while the Legislature was in session.
In a part-time legislature such as Vermont’s, many legislators hold multiple jobs and wear an array of hats. Westman is no different. He is manager of the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation’s 529 Vermont Higher Education Investment Plan, owner of multiple housing rentals, and a member of the Vermont Electric Co-Op and Copley Hospital boards. In the Legislature, he sits on several committees, including the influential Senate Committee on Appropriations, where he deals, on occasion, with funding for the Vermont State Colleges System.
The issue of state funding for Vermont’s state colleges leapt to public consciousness last spring when former VSCS Chancellor Jeb Spaulding proposed closing the campuses of Northern Vermont University and the Randolph campus of Vermont Technical College. The VSCS’s financial woes were already significant, and COVID-19 pushed the system to the brink.
The plan to close campuses was almost immediately scrapped, and the system received some snap Coronavirus relief funding to help with immediate COVID-19 related costs. However, the VSCS leadership warned that the system would need a significantly increased appropriation from the Legislature to make it through another full year intact.
Recently, the Senate passed a bill allocating $23.8 million in “bridge” funding, on top of the VSCS’s standard allotment of $31.6 million, to get the system through what has been termed a “transitional” year. The money is meant to buy time while the VSCS board and multiple task forces look for ways to create a more sustainable model for the future.
“It’s really clear that the state has not been as supportive as they should have been in the past,” Westman said. However, he said, “with the CRF [federal Coronavirus Relief Fund] money coming in, and with a $23 million bump in General Fund state dollars when we are in a pandemic, the state has, this year, ponied up.”
Now, Westman said, “The real question for the state colleges is going to be when you get through this bridge year, and you get through this appropriation, how is the state college system going to transform itself so it remains competitive in a world where the Southern New Hampshire University and these online schools are trying to eat your lunch?”
Westman noted the importance of access to the state colleges in all parts of Vermont, citing his family’s proximity to Johnson State as a major factor in his having achieved a college education. “Growing up on a dairy farm 15 miles away from Johnson, I probably wouldn’t have gone to school without the campus there,” he said. “And for young students who grew up like me – and there are still a bunch out there – it’s important to keep the system alive, but the system has to be able to be nimble and move on its own. The system needs to move, to remain competitive, and we as a state have to help better. But it is multi-faceted if we are going to keep a healthy state college system…I desperately want Northern Vermont University to survive and thrive. My life would not be what it is without having that campus there, and I want to see it do well.”
According to Westman, an indicator of whether the schools are adapting would be improved enrollment numbers, “You can’t have declining enrollment. It simply comes down to the number of students that you’re educating,” he said. “We need to be able to educate the students for the jobs and for the things that Vermont needs.”
Westman gave an example, talking about how schools like Johnson used to train most teachers in the state, including his grandmother, 50 years before Westman himself attended. These schools filled a need. And today, Westman said, there is a serious need for mental health professionals, nurses and early childhood educators in the state. “I certainly – having graduated from the state college system with more of the traditional liberal arts type degree – know how important that is,” Westman said. However, he said, there does not have to be a choice between professional type programs and the traditional liberal arts degrees. “The system has to build on what the state needs, and you have to be able to fill classrooms.”
“The issue of declining enrollment is hurting the whole system,” Westman said.
Westman said that at least four years ago the Legislature set aside $5.5 million to help professionals already working in the state’s mental health agencies upgrade their credentials, but that money, at this point, is still not totally spent. The VSCS chancellor’s office, Westman said, tried to get a large portion of that money to go to the state college system. However, when the mental health agencies surveyed their continuing education students, the number one choice of the students going from a bachelor’s degree to master’s was Southern New Hampshire University. This, Westman said, does not have to do with the quality of the programing in New Hampshire. Rather, it has more to do with the nature of delivery. These people, he said, were taking classes online after work. “The nature of how people are learning is changing, and the system has to change with it,” Westman said.
“The truth is,” Westman said, “if the seats are filled with students, the state is never going to let anything bad happen to the system, and we’ll find the money to fund it. If the enrollment continues to decline, that becomes harder.”
Westman said that he was not sure what the correct level of state funding for the VSCS might be. “I want to see a healthy system. I know the state has to do better, and I want to support that,” he said. “And I want to give the system a chance to move ahead. But also, you have to make the point that back in the old days, before I was even around, they created VSAC to fund low-income students. And those students disproportionately go to the state college system. The state didn’t want to fund rich kids and out of state kids to go to a school. There’s different models around this, and I’m not sure exactly what the funding level is. I know we are too low. But, the fix for this is going to be the state’s got to do better, and the place has to be competitive.”
Funding the VSCS at a higher level Westman said, short of raising taxes, will impact the ability to fund other state functions. Westman pointed to health care – particularly Medicaid – as a cost that has been growing quickly and disproportionately eating up the state budget and “killing” opportunities to fund other areas.
While well aware of the multiple priorities for legislative funding, “The state needs to make higher education its top funding priority for a while.” Westman said.
On his politics, Westman said that he is a pragmatist and a moderate in a state whose political center of gravity has moved “way” to the left. “We all carry our childhood through us and the tools to think the way we think from what we learned as kids. For me, I grew up on a small hillside farm in Vermont where money was tight. I don’t want anybody to go hungry. I don’t want anybody to be cold. But, I know that we have to balance budgets. You can’t tax your way out of situations. Vermont has higher tax rates than a lot of states and a lot of places in the country, and we have to be mindful of that if we are going to have people move here and stay here over time. The first thing I want to do is listen to the people in my community, but I don’t think that money just grows on trees.”