POULTNEY — At their second meeting with alumni in the past month, Green Mountain College officials confirmed Thursday that the first round of layoffs has occurred, but they would be willing to work with anyone organizing efforts to save the college.
Officials took questions from an those in attendance and alumni online. Though alumni seemed hopeful, both Provost Tom Maus-Pugh and President Bob Allen said the climb to save GMC is daunting.
“There are major challenges ahead,” Allen said. “This year we are projected to have an operating deficit of $5 million.”
Bob Williams, owner of Williams Hardware in Poultney, asked about the likelihood of the USDA selling the college once it takes possession of the campus in June.
Allen said he didn’t know.
On March 7, there will be a meeting in Poultney with Ted Brady, deputy secretary for the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development, Paul Bruhn of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, and several others who Allen said are interested in the future of Green Mountain College and Poultney.
When asked whether a group of supporters could come together to change the Board of Trustees’ decision to close the college, Allen said he wasn’t sure.
“We’re at $22.5 million,” Allen said. “That doesn’t necessarily have to be cleared … what we needed was operating revenue. The challenge is, can we bring in enough students starting next fall to cover the operating expenses of the college?”
Allen said for that to happen, the school would have to immediately set to task, as faculty have spent the past two weeks figuring out places for their students to go.
“We (also) have a number of faculty who have found other positions, in some cases not in Vermont … We’d have to have the students, faculty and staff in order to open.”
The expense budget is $18.5 million, Allen said, but the school was taking in only $13.5 million, almost all of which was tuition, room and board.
“Eighteen months ago, I started a very aggressive plan to try and partner with another institution ... I approached four institutions (in Vermont) to partner, and was unsuccessful in all four,” he said.
Allen said he also approached an institution outside of Vermont, a partnership he said would have allowed for a reduction in overhead costs for both institutions involved, but could not secure a collaboration.
Allen said the institutions he approached wished to remain anonymous, and he previously signed non-disclosure agreements with them.
Former faculty member Kyle Callahan, who came to Green Mountain College when his former employer, Goddard College, shifted to a lower-residency program, asked if a similar solution had been considered for GMC’s undergraduate degree program.
“We convened a number of groups over the last several years,” Maus-Pugh said. “We’ve had retreats with the Board of Trustees … We brought students in to look at different options. We convened a working group of faculty and administrators starting in September.”
He said officials considered eliminating the residential undergraduate program and transitioning to an online model, but nothing seemed to fit.
“We couldn’t produce a model that would yield enough revenue to cover the expenses under the different scenarios,” Maus-Pugh said. “Part of that are transition costs — when you disrupt the (system) you lose revenue, you lose students. It required a significant amount of cash to get through the transition.”
Allen agreed to release descriptions of the models faculty came up with, but Maus-Pugh said some models contained confidential information regarding faculty salaries and benefits, which would not be released.
Maus-Pugh agreed to release an overall aggregate figure regarding faculty costs, but could not guarantee when he could compile the data.
He also said the current 990 from this fiscal year would not be released until after June 30.
Maus-Pugh said there was a jump in operating deficit from $900,000 recorded in the 2017 990 tax form to a $5 million dollar loss due to multiple factors including fundraising.
“Gifts to the college dropped dramatically,” Maus-Pugh said.
Maus-Pugh said GMC also had a $2 million grant, a Title III grant, that was producing $500,000 a year, which he said was being used to cover expenses. The school had to absorb that this year, bringing the total up over $1 million.
When asked by an online participant how much time alumni would have to organize an effort to save the college, Allen said 75 students were graduating in May and no freshman class was coming in the fall, though there had been a substantial number of applications that had to be turned away.
“Our inquiries were up dramatically, our applications were up dramatically … we anticipated that we would have a robust freshman class,” Allen said.
But even that would not be enough to save the school.
“Almost no number would be large enough to cover that deficit that I’ve been talking about,” Allen said. “A very large number of incoming freshmen. Probably more than the size of the other three classes.”
Allen said school officials didn’t consider closure until every other possible avenue had been explored.
“We had an operating deficit (when) I got here,” Allen said. “Green Mountain College has always been fragile financially.”
In order for GMC to receive a community development loan from the USDA, the school needed to create its own LLC — GMC Holdings — to hold the physical assets of GMC.
GMC Holdings has three managers: Maus-Pugh, Allen and one of the former trustees and former Board Chairman Tony Cortesi.
Ultimately, should the alumni group decide to raise money and take action, it would need to complete a proposal to put before the Board of Trustees, which Allen said he would present, should one come forward.
When asked why he hadn’t reached out to alumni sooner to let them know of the financial challenges, Allen said it would have risked enrollment and any financial hope the college managed to keep alive.
“It was a judgement call on the part of the administration,” Allen said.
Bertha Josephson, class of 1973, said she just learned of the struggles of the college and drove from Northampton, Massachusetts, to the school to find out more information.
Given that the college was operating under a deficit when Allen arrived at GMC, Josephson asked what his plan was at the time.
“I didn’t discover the deficit until I got here,” Allen said. “We started to try to reduce expenses. On buildings and grounds, virtually everyone on the full-time staff was cut down to 32 hours … hired a member of our faculty as chief marketing officer … the following year, we had a very aggressive year to bring students in, and we did not.”
Maus-Pugh said that by announcing the school’s closure as immediately as they could — the same day that the board made its decision — officials were giving as much time as possible for students and faculty to find new homes.
“We’re willing to give up a lot to keep this place going,” Maus-Pugh said. “Our number-one priority is our students.”
Allen, Maus-Pugh and the rest of the cabinet are still collecting salaries, Allen said.
According to the school’s 990 filing on Pro Publica, Allen received $85,257 in the 2016-17 fiscal year. Maus-Pugh received $92,225.
Allen confirmed that the remainder of GMC’s endowment would be used in the coming semester.
“There’s a group of us who just found out about this,” Josephson said. “If we knew, we would have done something.”