Burlington College announced today that it will close on May 27 after it found itself unable to recover from “the crushing weight of the debt” incurred under Jane O’Meara Sanders, the college’s former president and wife of Bernie Sanders.
At the end of 2010, Ms. Sanders took out $10 million in loans on behalf of Burlington College to purchase a 32-acre swathe of land from the Roman Catholic diocese, which put the land up for sale to help cover the costs of a $17 million sexual-abuse settlement.
As Heat Street reported last month, the college almost immediately fell short on its financial obligations as fundraising pledges and commitments Ms. Sanders cited in the loan agreements never materialized.
Less than a year after leading Burlington College into massive debt, Ms. Sanders resigned, taking with her a $200,000 severance package. By 2014, because of its shaky finances and running deficits, Burlington College found itself placed on probation for two years by the regional accreditation agency.
A Burlington College news release issued this morning called these financial hurdles “insurmountable at this time.”
“We anticipate notice from [the regional accreditation agency] that we have not met the Commission’s financial standard,” the news release said, “and, therefore, our accreditation will be lifted as of January 2017, and the College will not be able to award academic credit after this time.”
Other Vermont colleges and universities will absorb current students, as well as those Burlington College had accepted for fall 2016.
Ms. Sanders, the Sanders campaign, and Burlington College’s spokesperson could not be immediately reached for comment.
Catholic parishioners in Vermont have called for an investigation into whether Ms. Sanders committed federal bank fraud by deliberately misrepresenting the amount that the college had secured in fundraising pledges as she sought financing for the land purchase.
As Ms. Sanders pursued financing for the land acquisition, she repeatedly said that Burlington College had received more than $2 million in fundraising commitments and pledges, according to numerous records.
But in fiscal year 2011, Burlington College raised only $279,000—though the college had earlier claimed to have secured $1.2 million in confirmed pledges.
Typically, between 91 and 94 percent of fundraising pledges come through, a recent study found after surveying more than a thousand nonprofits.
In January, Vermont lawyer Brady Toensing, who is also vice chair of the Vermont Republican Party, wrote a letter on behalf of Catholic parishioners to the U.S. attorney in Vermont, as well as the inspector general of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, seeking a probe into whether Ms. Sanders fraudulently secured the loans.
The U.S. attorney, Eric Miller, confirmed that he had received the parishioners’ letter but could not comment on the status of any investigation.
Neither the Sanders campaign nor Ms. Sanders responded to Heat Street‘s inquiries in April about the loans, though a Sanders spokesperson told a local Burlington television channel that the allegations were “recycled, discredited garbage.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute.