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Fiscal, management problems undo Mount Senario
by Pamela Rust
F or the past four decades, students could choose between two four-year private colleges in Northwest Wisconsin — Northland College in Ashland and Mount Senario in Ladysmith.
Beginning this month, only Northland College will remain. Mount Senario College is in receivership and closing its doors.
Why it went under is a no-brainer, said Andy Albarado, Rusk County’s economic development director.
“It’s no big mystery — poor leadership, lack of internal controls, poor decisions over a number of years,” he said.
Mount Senario was opened in 1962 by the Servants of Mary Catholic order. The college became secular in 1975, managed by a board of trustees not affiliated with any religious organization. As recently as five years ago, the mortgage for the college buildings was paid off and the school was debt-free.
But administrators and trustees made bad spending decisions, and ignored the need for fundraising. “Even since the 1970s, they’ve never had a large endowment,” Albarado said.
They did build a new soccer field and began focusing on athletics, with a lot of students on scholarships.
Many others in the community also blame financial mismanagement for the college’s demise. Over the past 18 months, it’s had three presidents.
The college’s troubles came to a head in November 2000. It was unable to show a balanced budget and was put on probation by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the national organization charged with accrediting colleges.
The city of Ladysmith and Rusk County tried to help, buying buildings and leasing them back to the school, and purchasing land owned by the college. Trustees even eliminated the college’s athletic program to save money. But it was too late.
In April, the board of trustees decided to close the college this summer, after the academic year ends. The decision was precipitated by a planned May visit by the North Central Association to further review the college’s financial situation.
The decision has displaced 230 fulltime and part-time students and 75 employees. Typical enrollment through the years had been around 800.
In January 2001, then-President Norman Stewart told the weekly Ladysmith News the college’s financial problems were the result of students paying tuition slowly or not at all. He said 95 percent of the students were on financial aid.
Stewart, who was the college’s chief executive during the debt-free days, is often blamed for the problems during his tenure. He was ousted in March 2001, and replaced by Charles Holt as interim president. Holt retired in March and was replaced by acting president Kathy Ducommun to ensure smooth student transfers and an orderly shutdown.
Dewey Floberg was among those displaced in July as Mount Senario was getting ready to shut its doors. He’d worked there since graduating in 1980, in college administration, admissions and teaching.
He said it started unraveling in the mid-1990s when trustees decided it was time for the debt-free college to expand. “We spent money in the hope it would continue to help the college grow,” he said.
“In a nutshell, we spent money and boosted student affairs because we thought it would help with retention. We hired fulltime athletic coaches. We weren’t at capacity, so we tried to increase student services,” he said.
Instead, the number of students decreased.
Floberg believes supporters were close to pulling off a financial rescue. The organization was finally streamlined, and it had one of its strongest boards ever, he said.
But in the end, there was too much of a gap to close in terms of pay raises and building repairs, he said. Accreditation also was in jeopardy and the North Central Association counseled it was in everyone’s interest to shut down.
What to do with the campus?
A court-appointed receiver will dispose of college assets. County development director Albarado said building re-use and redevelopment by the city or county isn’t a preferred option.
As a last resort, the city and county are ready to take on the challenge, he said. “The best re-use is another college.”
Other schools have been looking at the site but he would not reveal their names.
“The impact to the community is estimated at $30 million annually when you consider (lost) retail sales, housing and employment,” he said. “There are lots of (available) rentals now.
“A school is a lot like a manufacturing business,” said Albarado. “It brings new money into the community. In this case the school was larger than a manufacturer in recycling dollars within the community.”
Ladysmith, with a population of about 3,900, has a hospital, airport and several hotels.
While there are other major employers in the area, the college had up to 200 full-time equivalent employees in high-paying faculty and staff jobs in its heyday.
The loss of a four-year college to local students is as profound as the job losses, and will be felt for years to come.
Higher education also provides definition to a community and region. And leaders in Rusk County haven’t lost hope and given up the fight, not yet.
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