Just over a year ago, Burlington College announced its closure, undone by “the crushing weight of debt” incurred by its former president, Jane O’Meara Sanders. Now, the college’s final president has spoken out, accusing Sanders of nepotism.
From 2009 to 2011—all years when Sanders was Burlington’s president—the college spent more than $500,000 at Vermont Woodworking School. Carina Driscoll, Sanders’ daughter said she co-founded the business in 2007 with a $20,000 loan from Bernie Sanders; she is listed on corporate records as the woodworking school’s president.
“This is a sweetheart deal for Carina Driscoll, Jane Sanders,” Carol Moore, the final president of Burlington College, told the news website VTDigger. She added that the woodworking school was financially “gouging the college.”
A second, unnamed administrator also told VTDigger that “we shouldn’t have been paying this amount of money” for the services provided by Vermont Woodworking School.
Under Sanders’ tenure as president, Burlington College had no official written agreement with Vermont Woodworking School, instead operating on a “verbal agreement” that caught the attention of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
The independent evaluator said that without a written contract, Burlington College risked “conflicts of interest pertaining to the personal relationship between campus leaders,” also raising other concerns.
After Sanders resigned in 2011, taking with her a $200,000 severance, the struggling college no longer had to detail its business transactions with Vermont Woodworking School on its annual financial disclosures.
But VTDigger obtained internal documents from Burlington showing that the woodworking school remained among the college’s costliest programs, consuming nearly half of students’ tuition.
During the 2015-2016 academic year, Vermont Woodworking School received $228,225 from Burlington College, which also paid more than $143,000 to the woodworking program’s faculty.
And the 2016-2017 draft budget designated $400,000 in expenses related to the woodworking program, roughly 13 percent of Burlington College’s total budget.
Driscoll told VTDigger that allegations of nepotism were unfounded, adding that the woodworking school’s official written contract with Burlington College was negotiated after her mother’s resignation.
Driscoll said that Moore, the college’s last president, brought up Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign as Burlington College and Vermont Woodworking School renegotiated their contract. VTDigger said Driscoll felt the mentions amounted to “veiled threats,” adding that other administrators were also discomfited when Moore brought up the campaign.
In a November 2015 email regarding the negotiations, Moore told Driscoll: “Knowing your mother’s commitment to the woodworking school as its potential to support the mission and finances of [Burlington College], I am sure the agreement was signed without benefit of working through the specifics of the finances. Given the values expressed by your family, including Senator Sanders, I am confident no one saw the disadvantage at which the agreement put BC.”
Moore added the longtime agreement “places the college at a distinct financial disadvantage,” adding that “I am sure that was never the intent of [Jane O’Meara] Sanders.”
Burlington College announced its closure in May 2016, citing massive debt. Under Sanders’ leadership, the college took out $10 million in loans, which it used to buy 32 acres of property from the Roman Catholic Diocese.
To secure the financing for the land, Sanders repeatedly claimed in paperwork that the college had more than $2 million in fundraising commitments. But only about one-fifth of that money ever materialized.
That discrepancy apparently caught the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which began a probe into “some aspects of the College’s dealings,” according to a 2016 email from a Burlington College lawyer.
Brady Toensing, the vice chair of the Vermont Republican Party, has urged the federal government to investigate Sanders for federal bank fraud.
One Burlington College donor who has been interviewed by federal investigators told VTDigger that Sanders mischaracterized her commitment to the university. Two Burlington College staffers also told the publication that the probe involves the diocese property deal and Sanders’ claims in the college’s loan agreement with People’s United Bank.
Moore told VTDigger that when the FBI interviewed her about the college’s property acquisition, agents did not ask questions about the contract with Driscoll’s woodworking school; Driscoll said the FBI has not contacted her or her staff.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute.