by Zoe Newmarco
Vermont Technical College President Pat Moulton’s goals for the Randolph Center campus raised eyebrows, when a WCAX report quoted her as planning to “shrink” VTC’s footprint in Randolph Center while expanding the Williston campus.
Moulton explained that her comment came in relation to a plan VTC administrators are working on to develop as part of a Vermont State College’s initiative called “Secure the Future,” which aims to spell out how the institutions will “support vibrant, accessible, affordable education for Vermonters,” according to the Vermont State Colleges website. While the final plan, including a detailed fiscal report, is not due until June, Moulton presented an early iteration to the Vermont State College’s board of trustees earlier this month.
In her report, Moulton wrote that “we are in need of shrinking our space in Randolph Center. The goal is to sell certain properties and convert others to profit centers for the college.”
Randolph Center is the larger of the two campuses, with about 750 students as compared to Williston’s approximately 500, Moulton told The Herald last week.
“As we grow more programs in Williston we may see some even ing out. But Randolph will be the larger campus for the next several years given residential capacity available here,” Moulton said.
“It’s not shrinking as much as repurposing—yes we do want to sell some buildings,” said Moulton, noting that the college owns properties in Norwich, and several in Randolph that are off-campus. “Those assets—we’re not going to use them, so we might as well get rid of them.”
Among the changes proposed for the Randolph Center campus is a possible public-private partnership, that would allow a developer to convert one of the dorm buildings into apartments. Moulton emphasized that this project is in very preliminary stages.
The apartments could then be leased to students or members of the public, said Moulton.
According to her, this year marks the highest number of students living on campus in five years, with approximately 20 rooms still empty. Moulton said that the demand for dorm space may not stay as high as it currently is, but that even if it does, renovating the Old Dorm building into apartments would provide housing options for married students, or recent graduates joining the workforce.
Renovating the Old Dorm into apartments, “is taking that [dorm] offline for a period, not forever,” said Moulton, noting that any plans to completely close a dorm would be much farther down the road.
“None of this is happening overnight,” emphasized Moulton, explaining that the college is in a “five-year planning cycle.”
While renovating dorm buildings is at least two years out, Moulton said, in the near term, plans for the Randolph Center campus involve selling the Enterprise building on Route 66, an idea first put forth by former VTC president Dan Smith in 2014.
The school is also looking for a company to lease or purchase the anaerobic digester, which the school has operated since 2014. Moulton announced in September that VTC would cease operating the digester, which has suffered steep operating losses the past several years.
“The digester is an asset to the state, but we just aren’t in the digester business,” she said. “If we’re going to drop money into something, it’s going to be into labs, into classroom space, so it’s been great…but we’re losing money on that, in part because it’s not our core.”
More immediately there are some projects underway for expanding housing on the Williston campus, Moulton said. That campus—which has approximately two-thirds the students as Randolph Center—has only 50 beds, she said.
To create more housing in Williston, Moulton plans to lease some of the college’s land to a developer, who would then erect a multi-use building that houses some commercial space, as well as some dorm rooms.
“Frankly I think the process in Williston can inform us about what the process can look like here,” said Moulton.
Moulton noted that in addition to the Secure the Future plan, college administrators are planning to start a master planning process for both campuses in March, which will help inform the next moves for the college.
That master plan will help administrators develop a clearer timeline— and more specifics—about any building renovations for Randolph Center.
In the Black?
Moulton explained that the timing of the Secure the Future initiative is significant, because currently the four state colleges have relatively stable finances.
When Moulton joined VTC in 2017, she inherited the remnants of a deficit which hit $3.3 million under the management of former VTC president Phil Conroy. Conroy was succeeded by Dan Smith, who reduced the deficit nearly 80% in two-and-a-half years.
Under Moulton’s leadership, the college has twice ended the year with small surpluses—in FY17, the year ended with a surplus of $1.2 million, or 3% of the budget. FY19 ended with a $33,000 surplus, or 0.1% of its budget.
While two years ago, FY18 saw a deficit of $70,000, or 0.2% of its budget, Moulton said she believes its likely that FY20 will again end with a small surplus.
“We are going to build a budget assuming a decrease in enrollment, because that’s wise…but our admissions folks are clearly pushing for an increase in enrollment” said Moulton, noting that Vermont State Colleges data indicates that Vermont’s high school graduating classes have become 25% smaller over the past decade.
Moulton noted that this year, the budget accounted for 1% decrease in enrollment, but the school has seen a 1% increase in enrollment, which she credits largely to marketing efforts.
Chair of the Vermont State Colleges Board of Trustees, Churchill Hindes, echoed Moulton’s perspective on the likelihood of the campuses becoming more similar in size, rather than Williston outgrowing Randolph.
“I do not see any future where Vermont Tech would not have a strong presence in Randolph,” said Hindes. “The legacy programs at Randolph are rock solid—and are vital to the Vermont community.”
He emphasized that he sees Moulton’s changes as natural “evolution” of the college.
“I would be concerned if Pat Moulton were to say that her first objective was to not have anything ever change. That would really worry me.”
He added that thanks to the work of Moulton and the administrative team, “Vermont Tech is on the rise again,” describing the school as a “crown jewel” for the state.