Wesley College seeking to redirect bond bill money

DOVER — When lawmakers passed the capital bond bill the morning of July 1, 2018, they approved a provision allocating $1.375 million for Wesley College, the small liberal arts school located in the heart of Dover. But, although that funding was intended to help the college renovate the former Dover Public Library, it will instead be used for general operating expenses.

Added to the bond bill at the request of Sen. Colin Bonini at the college’s urging, the money was planned to turn the old library, which Wesley bought from Dover in 2017 for $1, into a “state-of-the-art educational facility dedicated to the teaching and training in health science and other high-demand fields of study.”

A few months ago, however, the college apparently determined it had a greater need for the funding elsewhere.

In a letter sent to Wesley President Robert Clark and dated March 28, the co-chairs of the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Capital Improvement, Sen. Dave Sokola and Rep. Debra Heffernan, agreed to reclassify the money “in anticipation of changes to be included in the Fiscal Year 2020 Bond and Capital Improvements Act.”

That arrangement, however, “does not alter the intent of the state appropriation in which the College will ultimately use other funds when available for the Old Dover Library in a manner consistent with its long-term financial plan,” the letter states.

The committee will meet this week to finish the bond bill for the fiscal year starting July 1, and members are expected to approve language formally reallocating the $1.375 million.

Moving the funding likely means a delay in converting the old library building, which has been vacant since 2012, to a health sciences facility and clinic.

In 2016, Wesley estimated renovations to the South State Street building would cost $2 million, telling the Dover City Council Committee of the Whole the facility would create “five to seven initial permanent jobs, with additional ones to follow.”

Dover City Council President Bill Hare and Mayor Robin Christiansen both said recently they are unaware of any discussions involving Wesley. While they acknowledged hearing rumors about the college’s financial state, “You’ve heard that for the last 20 years,” Mr. Hare said.

The old library is just one aspect of the financial discussions Wesley has been involved in with the state.

College administrators and supporters have been talking to state officials since at least March, and some are worried about the long-term sustainability of a school that has existed since 1873.

“We have spoken to the folks at Wesley College and we’re concerned about the financial situation that they’re in, and there’s been a lot of conversations about the best way to help them with their financial situation, and I don’t know that we’ve come up with — or anybody’s come up with — an acceptable approach to that at this juncture,” Gov. John Carney said last week.

Wesley College did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In a March 29 email sent to several state officials, as well as a few private financial consultants, Office of Management and Budget Director Mike Jackson proposed hiring an outside firm to analyze Wesley’s spending and expenses and map out a “financial planning model with base line for current financial profile and evaluate various alternatives to assess financial impact of changes to enrollment, operating and capital budgets.”

Such a review, he wrote, would take about a month.

The analysis, which was to be conducted by PFM, one of the firms the state has a contract with, was estimated to cost between $14,000 and $29,000 altogether, according to an email sent by the company’s managing director.

OMB spokesman Bert Scoglietti said the review will be charged to the state. As of Tuesday, however, the state had not been billed and Mr. Scoglietti said he was unsure whether the review was complete.

In a separate email sent to Mr. Jackson March 29, Wesley Chief Financial Officer Belinda Burke said the college supports a third-party review.

Mr. Jackson referred questions about Wesley to state legislators.

According to Internal Revenue Service documents filed with GuideStar, which maintains a database of nonprofit tax forms, Wesley reported total revenue of about $48.3 million and expenses of $49 million in 2016, with approximately $25.3 million in net assets.

In 2015, its revenue came to nearly $50.8 million, while its costs were a little more than $51.2 million, according to the IRS forms. It had approximate revenue of $49.5 million in 2014, with expenses of about $49.2 million.

Information for more recent years was not available.

Because Wesley is a private college, its finances are not easily accessible, and several emails sent to state budget officials contained thorough redactions of financial data when obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Rumors about Wesley have swirled for months, as evidenced by two March emails from the college’s president. On March 14, in a message to Wesley faculty, President Clark shot down “uninformed & untrue” speculation about Wesley being bought out.

He sent another email to college personnel almost two weeks later reiterating “there is no plan, or talk of anyone buying Wesley out, nor are there plans to close.”

Although not mentioned by the president, among the most persistent rumors is that Wesley is being bought out by or entering into some type of agreement with the University of Delaware. According to UD spokeswoman Andrea Boyle Tippett, there were conversations between the institution and Wesley earlier this year, but they have since stopped.

In both March emails, President Clark acknowledged Wesley is facing general problems.

“We do have many challenges, and that is not anything new, but we also have many dedicated folks working tirelessly to find solutions — both in the near- and long-term,” he wrote in the second correspondence.

But despite the president’s reassurances, others were worried about the college’s status. In another March 29 email, this one sent to Mr. Jackson and Secretary of State Jeff Bullock by Deputy Secretary of State Courtney Stewart, Ms. Stewart expressed a lack of surprise with information that had been shared with her.

“Over the years since I have graduated, Wesley has changed the markets they were targeting for admissions,” Ms. Stewart, a 2004 graduate, wrote.
“They increasingly recruited from urban areas and started to accept a high proportionate number of first-generation college students who often were not prepared for college — and as a result would often fail out or leave after their first semester. Many of these students didn’t have a support system in place at home, which made the transition to college even harder.”

She then proposed several ideas Wesley might be able to use to bring in money, such as renting dorms to the Firefly Music Festival attendees, expanding adult education programs, bringing a Dunkin Donuts or similar establishment to campus and turning the college’s share of the Schwartz Center of the Arts over to the state.

“I would hate to see the college that I love so much, close its doors without fully exploring all options,” she wrote.

According to Wesley’s website, its undergraduate enrollment was 1,228 in the fall, down 219 from the year before and 372 from five years prior. Of those 1,228 students, 1,125 were full-time.

Talk about Wesley’s future also has taken place on campus, with an April article in the Whetstone, the college’s student newspaper, describing speculation about the college’s finances that it said began in earnest in the fall.

Sen. Bonini, a Wesley alumnus and the college’s biggest supporter among the General Assembly’s 62 members, said last week legislators were trying to be “proactive” and get a firm handle on Wesley’s financial situation soon. Asked if there were reasons to be concerned about the school’s long-term fate, Sen. Bonini said he was unsure and discussions were ongoing.

“If this wasn’t Wesley College, if this were a business, we’d still be talking about 200 employees, $100 million in economic impact,” he said.

Sen. Trey Paradee, whose district includes Wesley, had little to share about the situation other than saying nothing “has been ironed out, so wait and see.” Rep. Sean Lynn, the other legislator who represents the area around the school, declined to comment.

Facebook Comment