SVC says it will appeal loss of accreditation

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BENNINGTON — Southern Vermont College has filed notice that the school intends to appeal a New England Commission of Higher Education decision to withdraw academic accreditation as of Aug. 31.

Barbara Brittingham, president of NECHE, confirmed that a letter from college President David R. Evans and the board of trustees was received shortly before the deadline Thursday for an appeal notification.

The college will now have 15 days from the filing of the notice of intent to submit a full written appeal with the commission. That must state the institution's evidence and argument in support of the appeal.

"What we did today was file a 'notice of appeal' to hold a place for a few more days ... to keep the option open," Evans said Thursday night. "We have received some funding to support the appeal, but not the kind of money we'd need to keep [the college] going."

An appeal of the NECHE decision apparently will require a $50,000 deposit to be applied against such appeal-related commission costs as travel, communication, meals, meeting space, or legal counsel.

'Positive step'

"This was a very positive step and a necessary step," said former SVC President Karen Gross, who has advocated on social media for a combined effort of college officials, alumni and others to keep the college open.

"I commend the board for giving this notice of intent," she said Friday.

The board of trustees had voted March 1 to close the college, two days after college officials attended a show-cause hearing before NECHE to answer the commission's concerns about SVC's financial stability going forward. Officials cited declining enrollment and tuition revenue as a major factor, along with resulting budget deficits.

Commissioners subsequently voted to withdraw the school's academic accreditation as of Aug. 31, and a joint news release March 4 announced the pending closure.

"This could be a lengthy process," Gross said of the possible appeal, "and it will be critically important that the college stay open. Shutting down, from my prospective, is not the right option."

She added, "People should now be more encouraged to contribute to the GoFundMe site," referring to an online appeal to raise money to fund an appeal to NECHE and cover other costs for the college.

Gross and another former SVC president, Barbara Sirvis, are listed among those pledging donations.

Meeting with banks

Evans recently described some of the financial issues faced by the college, its staff just under 100 full-time and 25 to 30 part-time employees and about 340 students.

He said Community Bank and the Bank of Bennington hold a mortgage on a total of about $6 million in bonds issued to SVC in 2011 for a new dormitory project and other improvements on campus.

He said late Friday that college officials had meet earlier in the day with bank officials but no final decisions concerning SVC were made.

"As for the bank discussion, we presented them with a proposal about how to proceed over the next several months that they have taken under consideration," Evans said. "It included retaining skilled professionals to work with the bank on our assets and some other matters. Nothing formal was decided, as both bank representatives need to take our draft idea back to their leadership committees."

Conservation easement

The town has set the assessed value of the campus buildings and the surrounding 371 acres at $9,028,900. The SVC admissions office at 897 Monument Ave. is assessed at $369,900.

However, the Banner has learned that more than half of the 371-acre campus land has deed restrictions that could affect any sale. The Vermont Land Trust and the college agreed in 2005 to restrict development rights and add a conservation easement affecting approximately 226 acres west of the Everett Mansion, including wooded mountainside land and hiking trails.

The Land Trust also reportedly holds an option to purchase that land if it were to be sold.

The easternmost approximately 145 acres of the campus, closest to Monument Avenue, includes all existing improvements and was excluded from the easements. But the 2015 deed that transferred the admissions office property on Monument Avenue to the college includes language referring to covenants and restrictions for a 20-year period.

Other outstanding debt owed by the college "is probably less than $300,000," Evans said.

He added that some creditors "have asked that we pay in advance for certain goods and services, which we are doing."

Fund drive, petition

Meanwhile, alumni and others have mounted a petition drive to lobby Gov. Phil Scott and the Legislature to "Save Southern Vermont College", which had just over 1,500 signatures as of Friday evening.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien


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