Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Burlington College's Financial Troubles Detailed in Letter from Accreditor

Posted By on Tue, Jul 22, 2014 at 5:35 PM

Burlington College president Christine Plunkett - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Burlington College president Christine Plunkett
It’s no secret that Burlington College has a big, long-term debt. In 2011, it borrowed $10 million to move from a 19,000-square-foot building to the 90,000-square-foot former Catholic orphanage it currently occupies.

But the regional accreditation group that put the tiny liberal arts college on probation at the end of June appears to be worried about more immediate financial problems.

In a letter the New England Association of Schools and Colleges sent Burlington College on June 27, NEASC explained why it put the school on probation: It described an institution struggling to pay its bills. College officials, who announced the news on July 7, declined to release the document publicly. Seven Days obtained a copy earlier this week.

Burlington College's long-term debt service plan is to increase enrollment from roughly 290 students to as many as 750, and to sell and lease parts of its lakeside property to a local developer. 

In the meantime, the 42-year-old institution has no cash reserves, according to NEASC's letter. The letter stated that the accreditation body was “extremely concerned that the College does not have sufficient cash to meet its biweekly $90,000 payroll this summer, and we are distressed to learn that the institution may use Fall 2014 tuition income” to help pay those salaries.

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Burlington School District Asks City for a Loan of up to $4.8 Million

Posted By on Fri, Jul 11, 2014 at 4:59 PM

Patrick Halladay - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • Patrick Halladay
The Burlington school district is asking the City Council for an interest-free loan of up to $4.8 million to make sure it can pay its bills during a 90-day period.

Confronted with the possibility that it will temporarily run out of cash — a common situation for school districts across the state, according to school board chair Patrick Halladay — the Burlington School Board's finance committee has been looking for a line of credit.

"This is nothing that would be considered atypical," Halladay said, adding that the cash flow situation doesn't stem from the district's deficit troubles. "The complication we have this time is this hasn’t been how things have been done in Burlington in the past."

Up until July 1, the city and the school district shared a pooled cash account. If the school district was running low on money and needed to send out paychecks or pay for other expenses, it could temporarily draw on city funds. They terminated that arrangement and separated their accounts at the request of the Agency of Education.  

In early June, the school board asked the City Council for a loan of up to $2.6 million at a 0.5 percent interest rate. At the time, several councilors on the board of finance expressed misgivings about approving such a low interest rate. Before the council had a chance to vote on the request, both city and school officials found at that state law doesn't actually allow municipalities to charge schools interest on loans.

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Monday, July 7, 2014

Accreditation Group Puts Burlington College on Probation

Posted By on Mon, Jul 7, 2014 at 3:08 PM

Christine Plunkett on the Burlington College campus. - FILE PHOTO, MATTHEW THORSEN
  • file photo, Matthew Thorsen
  • Christine Plunkett on the Burlington College campus.
Updated, 4 p.m. 7/7/14 with additional information provided by NEASC.
The association in charge of accrediting New England colleges has put Burlington College on probation, citing concerns about its finances. 

The Queen City college made the New England Association of Schools and Colleges' (NEASC) decision public in a statement issued Monday. The probation period can last up to two years, during which time the college must meet certain undisclosed benchmarks to hold onto its accreditation. 

The private liberal arts school took on $10 million in debt to purchase its new campus from the Roman Catholic Diocese 2011. It moved to the landmark 90,000-square-foot former orphanage on North Avenue from a 19,000-square-foot building on the same street. Much of the building remains vacant. The college needs several million dollars worth of renovations to be habitable and roughly $20 million to be restored, according to its president, Christine Plunkett.  

The real estate transaction was predicated on bold financial goals. Most notably, college officials plan to bolster revenue by increasing enrollment, currently at 290, to 750, despite a declining high school population. Burlington College relies almost entirely on tuition dollars for its revenue.

Coralee Holm, a spokesperson for the college, said she didn't know whether being put on probation would affect their efforts to recruit new students. "I can't say. There are variety of reasons why kids come or don’t come to college," Holm said, adding that "We don’t anticipate it significantly impacting our student population."

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Monday, June 30, 2014

Pomerleau Gives $1 Million to Boys and Girls Club of Burlington

Posted By on Mon, Jun 30, 2014 at 3:28 PM

Tony Pomerleau - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • Tony Pomerleau
Summer camp for the kids at Burlington's Boys and Girls Club began Monday with a series of speeches delivered by men in suits. The campers plucked clover in Roosevelt Park as the politicians and philanthropists offered inspirational advice. 

Arguably the best-dressed and indisputably the oldest of the men in suits was 96-year-old Tony Pomerleau, who was there to dole out something more concrete to the Club: $1 million. 

To put that in perspective: According to GuideStar, the Club recorded $1.4 million in revenue in 2012— most of which came from grants and donations. The gift, to be paid in installments over the next decade, is the largest in the club's history, according to its executive director, Mary Alice MacKenzie.

"If Tony Pomerleau didn't give one more gift in his life he would go down in history as one of the most generous Vermonters this state has ever seen," MacKenzie said. "But he hasn't stopped and we are very very lucky that he has believed that what we are doing with our education program is worthy of a very very big gift from him."

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Burlington School Board Opts for Financial Consultant Rather Than City's Assistance

Posted By on Fri, Jun 27, 2014 at 4:49 PM

The Burlington school board won’t be taking Mayor Miro Weinberger up on his offer of dispatching Bob Rusten, the city’s chief administrative officer, to patch up the district’s finances.

Instead, the finance committee has approved a motion to ink a contract with a financial consultant — Ed Gomeau, according to one its members, Scot Shumksi. Gomeau has previously served as the New Haven Public Schools’ finance director in Connecticut, and as business manager for the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union in Vermont, according to the Addison Independent.

The school board is also looking for a permanent finance director to replace David Larcombe, who is resigning on June 30. It recently appointed an acting superintendent to oversee the schools while it searches for a replacement for Jeanne Collins, who is also stepping down at the end of the month. 

Weinberger made his offer on April 28, after the public learned that serious budgeting problems had led to the district’s repeat deficits. The City Council voted 12-1 in favor of the arrangement. 

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Burlington Friends of Education Spent $4,200 to Pass School Budget

Posted By on Wed, Jun 18, 2014 at 9:10 PM

The Burlington school budget barely passed the second time around, but pro-budget organizers appear to have outspent their opponents by a long shot. 

Burlington Friends of Education leafletted neighborhoods and plastered the city with red lawn signs urging residents to vote for the $67.4 million budget. All that paper added up: According to its most recent campaign finance report, filed with the Secretary of State on Tuesday, the group spent roughly $4,200 on the effort. They raised $4,000, which was split nearly 50/50 between contributions of more than $100 and those less than $100. 

A group formed by school board member Scot Shumski to encourage voters to reject the budget has not submitted a report to the Secretary of State,  a step required of political action committees that spend $1,000 or more during an election cycle.

Nearly 6,500 voters came out to the polls on June 3After a recount, city officials determined that the budget had passed by just 71 votes — a margin of less than 1 percent.

Three months ago, on Town Meeting Day, residents struck down the budget by about 700 votes. Friends of Education members admitted they hadn't done much leading up to the vote (any fundraising they did was under the $1,000 filing threshold), and the outcome caught them off-guard. The group has been sleepy for a number of years because the budget easily passed without their advocacy. 

Shumski didn't form his group until after the first vote. 

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Another Burlington School Board Member Resigns

Posted By on Thu, Jun 12, 2014 at 3:30 PM

Greg Jenkins, right, at a recent board meeting. At left sits his ward-mate, David Kirk. - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • Greg Jenkins, right, at a recent board meeting. At left sits his ward-mate, David Kirk.
Greg Jenkins, a Burlington school commissioner representing Ward 7, has resigned, making him the third person in recent months to leave the 14-member board prematurely.

Jenkins gave word of his decision without much fanfare. He posted the following to Front Porch Forum, and declined to comment further.

Dear Ward 7

Effective 6/10 I have resigned from our school board for deeply personal, and philosophical differences. It is not in my nature to get gagged, but I was and well $225ish made it not our problem. This goes against the very nature of who I am. There are hopeful signs this board can rally. Please let us come together and fix the problem, and not bicker.

I look forward to doing something else.

Greg Jenkins

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Monday, June 9, 2014

After Recount, Burlington School Budget Passes by Another Three Votes

Posted By on Mon, Jun 9, 2014 at 10:58 PM

Dale Tillotson - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • Dale Tillotson
Councilors sat in rows, two to a table, giving Contois Auditorium an elementary school feel. Their assignment Monday night wouldn’t have stumped a second grader: They were there to count stacks of paper.

More precisely, they were re-counting the 6,450 ballots Burlington residents cast for or against the school budget on June 3. 

On the day of the vote, tabulator machines recorded the ballots, and the city-certified outcome was that the budget passed by 68 votes. The slimness of the margin led Dale Tillotson, a Ward 7 voter, to request a recount. He knew the outcome was unlikely to change, but said he viewed it as an opportunity to test Burlington's voting procedures.

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Thursday, June 5, 2014

Citizen Requests Recount of Burlington School Budget Vote

Posted By on Thu, Jun 5, 2014 at 1:55 PM

Burlington residents fill out their ballots on Town Meeting Day. - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • Burlington residents fill out their ballots on Town Meeting Day.
The Burlington school budget passed by a very close margin Tuesday — too close for the comfort of at least one resident.

Dale Tillotson, a Ward 7 voter who opposed the budget, has asked for a recount, and assistant chief administrative officer, Scott Schrader confirmed today the city will honor his request. 

State law lets registered voters request a recount if the vote is within 5 percent. On Tuesday, 6,450 ballots were cast, and the budget passed by 68 votes. That's a margin of 1 percent. 

Neither Tillotson nor Schrader expect the outcome to change.

Schrader said the tabulator machines are reliable, and sensitive enough to register votes even if ballots are filled out sloppily. "The tabulators are programmed to pick up a portion of a mark in an oval so even if someone makes a check mark or a cross, it will still calculate that as a vote and if for some reason, there is a stray mark in both ovals, the ballot would be kicked out as invalid, and the person could vote again."

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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Burlington School Budget Passes by 68 Votes

Posted By on Tue, Jun 3, 2014 at 8:45 PM

By a very slim margin, Burlington residents approved the $67.4 million school budget proposal Tuesday.

Unofficial results show that the Fiscal Year 2015 school budget proposal passed by 68 votes. Nearly 6,500 people came out to the polls. 

Three months ago, by a margin of roughly 700 votes, residents rejected a $66.9 million budget proposal. The budget approved Tuesday is half a million dollars higher.

In March, the budget went down by wide margins in the two New North End wards (4 and 7) and by narrower margins in Wards 5 and 6. Total voter turnout was roughly 7,500.

This time, all wards except 4 and 7 voted in favor of the budget. 

Possibly helpful in getting the budget passed was the fact that the tax increase is lower than was forecast in March. That's because the legislature set the statewide rate lower than expected.

The Burlington Friends of Education spent roughly $3,500 to encourage residents to vote for it. An opposition group organized by school board member, Scot Shumski, spent about $500 as of May 27.

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