Our opinion: Now more than ever, transparency essential at SVC

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The leaders of Southern Vermont College have our attention as they determine how to wind down decades of history and face what, in all likelihood, are the last days of the school's existence.

The obligations are many: SVC must assure graduating seniors their degrees will be conferred, help the rest of the student body find transfer destinations, satisfy financial responsibilities to employees and vendors, and find buyers for the campus and the Lauermeister Arts Center. This will all happen as the school's bank account dwindles toward zero.

No one believes the financial crisis at SVC isn't real. The college needed to secure a loan of nearly $1 million to cover payroll and other obligations through its May 16 pay day, and was fortunate to receive a gift covering pay and management of other school functions, such as transcripts and final grades, through May 30.

That said, the complaints of multiple faculty and staff members reveal a troubling lack of transparency at a time when the SVC administration and trustees need to have their cards on the table.

Faculty and staff told the Banner they were kept largely in the dark as SVC's financial crisis worsened — brought on by declining enrollment and significant debt service — even as they remained loyal despite the lack of cost-of-living raises for several years.

This spring, faculty who elected to have their pay spread out over the entire year have no guarantee they will be paid over the summer months. Faculty members said that amounts to nearly a third of their pay for a contract year they will complete in May.

SVC President David Evans recently told those employees, "At this point, the college will likely not be able to pay employees immediately at the end of May for accrued wages and benefits they elected to defer into June, July and August. Potential sources of additional funding, including liquidation of the assets, are being explored, but timing is not assured."

The assets referred to are primarily the real estate holdings, which are being listed with both national and regional firms. However, how much the college clears from any sales is relative to a mortgage and other debt totaling more than $6 million.

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One faculty member said instructors, who met April 19 with a member of the board of trustees and an attorney representing the board, felt pressured to continue working without pay. According to that account, faculty and staff were told that failure by the college to complete the year would leave SVC open to lawsuits from students and parents that would consume any money left over from the coming estate sale.

Another staff member said this week that faculty also have been pressured for years to opt for payment over 12 months rather than the over the nine months of the school year, so that currently only one instructor is on a 12-month pay schedule.

Meanwhile, rumors recently spread through the student body and staff that the school would not be able to finish classes or hold commencement. Those rumors proved unfounded, but it's an absolute truth that speculation — often exaggerated or outright false — grows in the absence of verifiable facts.

The administration and the trustees may feel bound to err on the side of silence. But people's livelihoods are at stake here. A few told the Banner that they could face a personal financial crisis if they don't receive their full salary. Their desire to have some idea about what they can expect is reasonable.

If faculty won't be paid money they're owed, or not for an extended period, then they need to make other plans. SVC isn't the only entity with financial responsibilities and debts in this situation.

Beyond that responsibility, SVC is morally obligated to take care of staff members who stayed without cost-of-living raises — at least on a par with the banks holding mortgages.

This all points to an important and necessary sea change that is needed in the way SVC communicates with the community in what, absent a miracle, will be the school's final few weeks.

Commencement is coming, and once the campus community gathers and the ceremony begins, the ability of administrators and trustees to stage manage the situation will vanish. It could be a healthy moment of closure for all involved, or it could be an ugly food fight in which students and faculty who feel they've been kept in the dark might be tempted to lash out.

Certainly there's no way to make everyone happy, particularly faculty who are owed months of pay they might never see. But the way the school communicates its circumstances between now and that final commencement march could have a significant effect on whether SVC's final act is a time of fond remembrance, or a session for bitter recrimination.


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