A college once run by Sen. Bernie Sanders’s wife Jane has announced it’s closing in two weeks, thanks to a crushing debt burden it took on during her presidency.
Jane Sanders served as president of Burlington College in Vermont from 2004 to 2011. When she took over, the tiny school had just a few hundred students and was based out of a small building in Burlington, but Sanders dreamed of much greater things. In 2010, she spearheaded an effort to borrow about $10 million in order to buy a large property being sold off by the Catholic Diocese of Burlington. The new, expansive property would provide the college a much larger campus and would allow it to heavily boost enrollment.
The plan at the time was to transform Burlington College from a tiny school of just a couple hundred students into a bigger regional academic player, with an enrollment of 600 or more.
But the amount of debt was dramatic for such a tiny school, and it ended up backfiring horribly. The college’s enrollment did not rise quickly enough to finance its debt payments, and instead its financial position rapidly deteriorated. In 2011, Sanders resigned as president, and subsequent administrators tried frantically to keep the school afloat. Expenses were slashed, the school dipped into its tiny endowment to meet routine expenses, and the school sold off a huge swath of the property it had so recently purchased.
Finally, last week, Burlington College reached the end of its rope. Administrators were informed their line of credit would not be renewed, while the The New England Association of Schools and Colleges was expected to revoked its accreditation because of its financial state. Seeing no way forward, the board of trustees voted Friday to end academic operations May 27.
In a statement, Burlington College Dean of Operations Coralee Holm bluntly said the college failed due to “the crushing weight of the debt incurred by the purchase of the Archdiocese property” made by Sanders.
In a press conference Monday afternoon, Holm described the college’s collapse as “heartbreaking.”
“To see an [educational] institution go out of business is very difficult,” she said, with tears filling her eyes. The school’s employees will lose their jobs, while students in the middle of degrees will have to transfer to another school, potentially losing credits in the process.
But there may be even more to the story than a case of bad business sense.
As was reported in a 2015 Daily Caller News Foundation investigation, Burlington College obtained its fatal $10 million in debt through dubious means that may even have amounted to fraud on the part of Sanders or others. In order to have $6.5 million in tax-free bonds approved by the Vermont Educational and Health Buildings Finance Agency (VEHBFA), Burlington College had to demonstrate it was set to receive at least $2.27 million in pledges and donations in the near future. The school subsequently produced a list of $2.6 million in grants and legally-binding pledges it expected to receive within the next five years.
Yet in the summer of 2011, just a few months after the school received its big loan, an audit of the college’s finances showed only $1.3 million in short- and long-term financial commitments, suggesting about half of the school’s supposedly guaranteed pledges had simply vanished. If Sanders or others at Burlington College misrepresented the school’s financial situation, it could represent a case of fraud.
In January, 2016, attorney Vermont Republican Party vice-chair Brady Toensing sent a letter to U.S. Attorney Eric Miller asking him to investigate the matter, but thus far the federal government has shown no signs it is looking at the issue.
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