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South Royalton Businesses Concerned With Vermont Law School's Financial Challenges

In South Royalton, there’s a great craft beer bar, a bustling food co-op and a new coffee shop opening — but just about anyone you ask will tell you the town’s economic future depends on a healthy Vermont Law School.

So when news got out recently that Vermont Law was cutting salaries to save money, a lot of people in town were concerned about the school’s future.

“Anybody with any common sense would tell you that they should be welcoming the law school in a small town because we haven’t got anything else,” said Matt Daley, a landlord with 14 apartments he rents in downtown South Royalton. 

Matt Daley sits on a porch.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Matt Daley owns 14 apartments in South Royalton and said his business depends on a healthy Vermont Law School.

“There was a couple of grain stores here years ago, and the farms are going out, and so it’s a good thing that they've got the law school.”

In late July, it was reported that Vermont Law School was making changes to tenured faculty as part of a plan to restructure finances.

Daley heard about it, and he's heard other stories in town about the financial health of the school. He said the school only did what it had to do to survive in some very challenging times.

“I absolutely support the school, and what their financial business is is theirs,” he said. “[It’s] none of my business. Yeah, I hope they stay.”

"Anybody with any common sense would tell you that they should be welcoming the law school in a small town because we haven't got anything else." — Matt Daley, South Royalton landlord

The Five Olde Tavern and Grille is right across the street from Daley's apartments, and Dave McDerment has owned the restaurant for 14 years.

McDerment said just about every business owner in town would be affected if the school ever shut down.

“I think the law school is very important. I mean it’s a significant portion of our business,” said McDerment.  “You know, not just in the fact of the students and the faculty, but it also draws people from around the state when they have, you know, a speaker or guests. But definitely a good portion of everybody, I think, on the block's business.”

The most recent news about salary reductions at Vermont Law School follows years of falling enrollment and budget deficits.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Vermont Law School is closely tied with the downtown South Royalton business community.

Vermont Law School president Tom McHenry said small law schools across the country are all battling the same issues.

Fewer students are applying, and so law schools are offering discounts to the best students. And that means there’s less cash even as the schools' costs rise every year.

The steep drop in applicants started soon after the 2008 recession, and McHenry said colleges like Vermont Law School are still waiting for the trend to reverse.

“Nobody in the law school world expected enrollment to drop as much as it did and nobody expected it would take this long for enrollment to turn around,” he said. “So I knew coming to the law school that we were facing tremendous financial challenges. I was unaware of how great they were, how large they were. I think all of us here were unaware of how challenging it would be.”

"What we intended to have happen, happened. It's just that they didn't happen at the rate that we needed them to happen to give us the budget relief that was necessary. And so we had to make some tough decisions." — Tom McHenry, Vermont Law School president

The school has been slashing staff positions for five years, and deficit spending, with the hope that enrollment would eventually climb.

McHenry said there are some good signs — and enrollment’s up slightly — but not enough.

“What we intended to have happen, happened. It’s just that they didn't happen at the rate that we needed them to happen to give us the budget relief that was necessary,” McHenry said. “And so we had to make some tough decisions.”

Those tough decisions made a lot of people in South Royalton nervous.

Sherri Michaud sits in the hair salon that she owns.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Sherri Michaud owns a hair salon and said she gets a lot of customers from among the Vermont Law School community.

Walk up the street from Vermont Law School and you’ll find Sherri’s Headquarters, a family hair salon.

Sherri Michaud owns the salon and has been working downtown nearly 40 years. She said she’s noticed a drop in the student population.

And as far as understanding how it’s affecting staff, Michaud said when people are in her chairs, they talk.

“Some of them are very concerned about their future,” said Michaud. “Hard, kind of, I guess some ultimatums from what I understand might have been given. So it’s making it tough on some of them, some of them that have been there for many, many years.”

VLS president McHenry said the administration has finalized the course selections for this coming year, and so far, this year’s class is up slightly over last year.

And Daley, the landlord with the downtown properties, said all of his rooms are rented out through the school year.

Disclosure: Vermont Law School is a VPR underwriter.

Correction 8/16/2018 2:30 p.m. A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Barrister's Book Shop is owned by Vermont Law School. The caption has been corrected.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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