Burlington College, founded as a “college without walls” in 1972, ultimately failed in 2016 after struggling to pay off debt from an ambitious campus purchase. Jane O’Meara Sanders served as the school’s president for about seven years.
APRIL MCCULLUM/FREE PRESS
The lingering questions about Burlington College’s finances are based, in large part, on a cryptic three-page spreadsheet.
The spreadsheet — a list of confirmed and potential donors to the college’s 2010 capital campaign using each donor’s initials — helped Burlington College and then-president Jane O’Meara Sanders to finance the purchase of a new $10 million lakefront campus.
At least four of the donors included on the spreadsheet, however, have challenged the listed amount of their donations. The document now appears to be wrapped up in an ongoing FBI investigation about whether the donations were exaggerated to mislead the bank.
One former member of Burlington College’s board of trustees, David V. Dunn, said the board began to doubt the veracity of some of the capital campaign donations in the summer of 2011, and he says the doubts led to the removal of Sanders as president that fall. Dunn said the college’s finance office indicated that actual donations were less than what was originally represented.
A second former trustee, Jonathan Leopold, denied the account and said the board had no doubts about the approximately $2.6 million in listed capital campaign pledges. Leopold said the board was more concerned that additional fundraising efforts had stalled.
The college needed to raise $6 million to support the debt from the $10 million property purchase. College leaders also planned to renovate the spacious new campus, which would attract new students and their tuition dollars. The plan was to double enrollment.
“We didn’t have a strong history of capital campaigns, and we didn’t have an alumni base that lent itself to a capital campaign, so we knew that it was going to be a big lift,” said Leopold, who served on the college’s board of trustees for about six years.
Sanders, the wife of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., reached out to wealthy contacts, including businessman and philanthropist Tony Pomerleau and philanthropist Crea Lintilhac. Trustees were asked to contribute some of their own money as well as seek out other donors.
The sum of the confirmed pledges on the original spreadsheet was $2.67 million. The total amount of potential donations, including unconfirmed pledges, was $5.16 million.
Some of the donors have publicly questioned the amounts listed in their names:
- College trustees and financial statements indicate that the college’s major capital campaign donor, Corinne Bove Maietta, promised to give $1 million upon her death. The bequest is listed instead as a series of cash payments in the college’s list of donations. Maietta has spoken about the bequest with the news organization VTDigger but could not be reached for further comment.
- One former trustee, David V. Dunn, says his initials appear on the document next to an $18,000 confirmed pledge, but he never made any pledge.
- Another former trustee, Rob Michalak, believes his initials are marked down for a $5,000 commitment. The pledge was lower than $5,000, Michalak said, while declining to disclose the amount in his records.
- A third trustee, Ron Leavitt, told VTDigger in 2015 that though he was listed as a $60,000 donor, he never pledged that amount. He said he gave only $30,000. Leavitt could not be reached for further comment.
- Tony Pomerleau, who was listed as an unconfirmed $1 million donor on the list, said he offered the gift to Sanders as a matching donation if the college was able to secure a first $1 million. There is no indication on the donor list that the pledge was dependent on another gift.
Sanders left the college under a separation agreement in October 2011. Burlington College was ultimately unable to fulfill its fundraising or enrollment goals, and debt from the 2010 property purchase led to the college’s closure in May 2016.
The Burlington Free Press recently interviewed nine people known to be donors to Burlington College or whose initials matched the college’s list. Of the nine, seven people confirmed the amount of their pledges or indicated they likely would have been included on a list of potential donors.
It is unclear whether the list, which identifies potential donors only by their initials and contains several mathematical errors, served as the basis for the bank’s approval of the Burlington College fundraising plans, or whether the bank also reviewed donors’ signed commitment letters.
People’s United Bank and its officers have declined to comment on any aspect of the loan to Burlington College.
Sanders did not respond to a voicemail message seeking an interview for this report. Two former financial officials at Burlington College, Christine Plunkett and Michael Luck, did not respond to multiple voicemail messages and emails seeking comment. Adam Dantzcher, who served as chairman of the board of trustees when Sanders left the college in 2011, did not respond to a detailed list of questions.
The list of Burlington College donors was made public by the Vermont Educational and Health Buildings Financing Agency, the organization that approved $6.7 million in tax-exempt bonds for Burlington College. The agency’s attorney shared about 900 pages of documents related to the bonds, including the list of donors identified with initials, in response to a public records request.
The executive director of VEHBFA, Robert Giroux, said the agency never asked Burlington College for a list of donors and was surprised to learn that the list was among the agency’s documents.
The Boston-based firm Public Financial Management reviewed the college’s financial projections, including the capital campaign and enrollment projections, on behalf of VEHBFA and recommended that VEHBFA approve the bonds. Giroux said People’s United Bank, which was the underwriter for the tax-exempt bonds, was primarily responsible for negotiating the terms of the financing and verifying information.
“This is what they do for a living,” Giroux said of People’s United Bank. “So if they’re comfortable moving forward, then the agency is as well.”
Former trustees have given conflicting accounts of how the board viewed the capital campaign, and whether fundraising contributed to their decision to remove Sanders from leadership.
David V. Dunn, who said he served on the Burlington College board of trustees starting in the fall of 2010 and transitioned off the board in late 2011, said the board began to doubt the accuracy of the capital campaign contributions that had been presented in the spreadsheet, including the $1 million bequest from Maietta.
Dunn said the college finance office, led by Christine Plunkett, informed the board about discrepancies between the spreadsheet and what donors said they would contribute. Dunn said “questionable donations” were a factor in the board’s decision to ask Sanders to leave the college in October 2011.
“There were three issues that the board made the decision to remove her,” Dunn said. “One decision was the financial information and the questionable donations, the second was a student incident, and the third was a crisis of confidence in her leadership as expressed by the faculty.”
Leopold, who served on the board’s finance committee at the time Sanders left Burlington College, refuted Dunn’s claim that the board doubted the veracity of the pledges.
“I can say unequivocally that there was absolutely no question about the strength of that $2.6 million,” Leopold said.
Leopold and Carolyn Elliott, another board member who served on the executive committee, both said the board became concerned in 2011 about the lack of additional pledges beyond the original $2.6 million.
Elliott said the board’s decision to remove Sanders stemmed from a lack of confidence from college administrators, including Plunkett.
“My understanding was that it was because all three of the administrative offices of the school had come forward and said to the chair that they were no longer prepared to work with Jane, that there was a lack of confidence in her leadership,” Elliott said.
Rob Michalak, another trustee, did not recall concern about the capital campaign pledges. He declined to say why Sanders was asked to leave.
“I don’t recall seeing any numbers that created any concern,” Michalak said. “I know that there was a sense of, you know, we needed to go after it and be enterprising in reaching out and collecting the different capital campaign commitments and pledges, but I don’t recall anything where I was at a meeting where there was overdue concern or alarm.”
The spreadsheet of capital campaign donations listed 14 confirmed pledges from college trustees totaling $278,500. Three of the trustees have challenged the amounts listed next to their initials.
The document lists a $5,000 pledge with the initials “RM.” Rob Michalak said he pledged less money, but would not say how much.
“I humbly admit that my pledge was lower than that,” Michalak said. He said he made a verbal pledge that was acknowledged in a written letter from the college.
Michalak said he had given 75 percent of his pledge by the time he left the board.
David V. Dunn believes the spreadsheet lists him as a donor with the initials “DD” counted for a $18,000 gift over five years. He said he never made a pledge.
“My initials are on there, but I did not pledge any money,” Dunn said.
The college’s financial officers at the time did not respond to messages seeking to confirm the names of the donors, including the “DD” entry.
The third trustee, Ron Leavitt, told the news organization VTDigger that he gave only $30,000, even though the college spreadsheet listed his donation as a total of $60,000.
Other trustees confirmed their pledges.
Joel Miller served on the board of trustees for about 12 years until the college closed. When the Diocese property became available in 2010, Miller argued against the purchase and said the college should rent space instead.
“Using hope as a strategy, it was a little crazy,” Miller said.
Nevertheless, Miller and his wife, Hinda, agreed to contribute $25,000 over five years. They are listed in the college capital campaign document as “JHM.” Miller said they paid the full pledge.
Miller attributes the college’s ultimate failure to a lack of student enrollment, combined with the debt from the campus purchase.
“It was like a perfect storm. We had more bills and less people coming aboard,” Miller said.
Trustee Carolyn Elliott said she made a “modest pledge,” but did not pay it all. She said the $1,500 pledge listed on the spreadsheet under the initials “CE,” sounded accurate.
Elliott, who was on the board’s executive committee and supported the decision to remove Sanders from leadership, believes the federal investigation into Burlington College is “absolutely absurd.”
There was no “malfeasance,” Elliott said, that led to the college’s demise. She attributes the failure to a small pool of potential students, a lack of connections to the community, and an “ambitious leap of faith that didn’t turn out.”
In hindsight, Elliott believes the property purchase was a mistake.
“It was based on a plan and a hope, but certainly it was a mistake, because it involved raising far more money than the college had ever raised before,” Elliott said.
Robin Lloyd, who served on the board, confirmed that she would have been listed for a $60,000 contribution. A donation in that amount is listed with the initials “RLl.”
The spreadsheet also includes a $500 pledge from “JL.” Jonathan Leopold said he was that donor, and he believes he paid the full amount.
Other donors speak
Local philanthropists, alumni and friends of the college were also called upon to donate.
Philanthropists Crea and Philip Lintilhac were finishing up a five-year $50,000 donation to Burlington College when the college began the capital campaign for the new campus. They agreed to give another $100,000 over five years through the Lintilhac Foundation.
“My husband and I definitely believed in Jane Sanders’ vision,” Crea Lintilhac said in an interview. She believed Sanders planned to sell part of the 32-acre campus to bring down the debt.
The donor spreadsheet lists a $120,000 confirmed donation under the initials “CPL2.” Lintilhac said the $120,000 amount may have been accurate because of the overlapping pledges.
After Sanders left the college in 2011, Lintilhac said no one from the college met with her to update her on the college’s plans or vision, unlike other nonprofit organizations that received her philanthropy. Her only contact from the Burlington College development office came in the form of postcards inviting her to events.
In 2014, when the New England Association of Schools and Colleges placed Burlington College’s accreditation on probation for financial reasons, Lintilhac was alarmed enough to stop her financial support.
Lintilhac wrote a letter to Plunkett, the then-president of Burlington College, and said her foundation was “extremely concerned” about the college’s financial ability to fulfill its mission.
“I absolutely understand your concerns and I hope to meet with you later this month to give you some updates,” Plunkett wrote in response. “I look forward to seeing you and will be in touch.”
Lintilhac said she never heard from Plunkett, and the Lintilhac Foundation withheld the final $40,000 of its pledge. After Plunkett resigned in 2014, Lintilhac met with Interim President Mike Smith. The college closed in 2016.
Lintilhac said the college should have reached out personally to donors sooner after Sanders left. She does not feel that her donations to Burlington College were a waste of money.
“There are many wonderful projects that become defunct, but they served the people well during their time,” Lintilhac said.
“Sometimes by nature or by accident or by unfortunate circumstances like this, a wonderful endeavor ends,” she continued, “but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t incredibly productive and worthwhile while it lasted.”
Helen Riehle, a former Burlington College board member, said she and her husband Ted had supported the college financially in the past. Riehle said she attended Sanders’ tour of the new campus, and though she was excited about the property, Riehle did not recall making a financial pledge for the capital campaign.
The spreadsheet lists an unconfirmed donation for $2,000 under the initials “THR.” Riehle said it would not have been unusual for her to be listed on a spreadsheet of potential donors.
Adam Bortz, a Burlington College graduate who served on the board of trustees, said he agreed to make a donation to the capital campaign. He declined to share the amount, and the donation does not appear to be listed on the spreadsheet that the college prepared in 2010.
Bortz, who leads the Burlington College alumni association, sent the final installment of his five-year donation just months before the college closed. He says the board of trustees bears the full responsibility for the college’s fate.
“I was devastated,” Bortz said. Nevertheless, Bortz does not regret his financial support for Burlington College.
“I’m still glad I did it,” Bortz said, “because it’s my college.”
All of Burlington College’s assets have been sold, but they were not enough to pay off its debts. The final foreclosure sale is set to be finalized in Chittenden Superior Court next week.
Contact April McCullum at 802-660-1863 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @April_McCullum.
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