BENNINGTON -- Other than discussions with state education officials, the idea of transforming the public North Bennington Graded School into an independent elementary school has been confined to a local spotlight.
Ethan Allen Institute
That will change next week when the top school officials involved in the process bring the discussion of their efforts over the past year to Burlington for the Milton Friedman Centennial Program sponsored by the Ethan Allen Institute.
The event -- in honor of the 100th birthday of the late Nobel Prize-winning economist and champion of school choice -- will include a PowerPoint presentation from Raymond Mullineaux, North Bennington Prudential Committee chairman; Thomas Martin, principal of NBGS; and Eva Sutton, co-chairwoman of the Board of Trustees for the proposed Village School of North Bennington.
Prior to answering questions, the group will give a broad overview of their progress -- from studies, public outreach, voters approval for the Prudential Committee to close the school and tuition students to the Village School, and the State Board of Education tabling the Village School application in May. The decision of the State Board denied the independent school from operating next school year and forced the Prudential Committee to keep NBGS in place as a public school at least one more year. The Village School Board of Trustees has since submitted a revised application to open in the fall of 2013, which it hopes will be taken up by the State Board in August.
The idea of privatizing a public school, as a member of the State Board described it in May, is very unique. While there are a number of independent schools in the state, few have emerged following the closure of a public school.
There is a chance, and perhaps a worry among some state officials and State Board members, that other towns may follow North Bennington’s lead if the transition proves beneficial.
Martin said multiple school boards have approached North Bennington officials to learn about the process and have shown an interest in it. Other school boards have publicly said they are closely watching how the efforts in North Bennington work.
"The fact that there’s kind of a statewide interest in this doesn’t totally surprise me," Martin said.
One member of the State Board characterized North Bennington’s efforts as a much larger issue than just North Bennington, and Martin said that sentiment is apparently being felt by more people in Vermont.
Mullineaux said the group agreed to the EAI invitation because what they are doing is a public topic. He does not have intentions of evoking change elsewhere.
"We’re advocating for ourselves. Whether it has broader consequences, maybe it will, maybe it won’t," Mullineaux said. "We’re basically talking about why we did what we did and I don’t anticipate that we will be sticking our necks out much beyond that."
The July 31 event at 7 p.m. is part of the Sheraton Economic Series the Ethan Allen Institute (EAI) -- a free-market public policy research and education organization -- puts on.
President Bruce Shields said EAI holds about a half-dozen Sheraton Economic Series events each year that all have to do with economics. On its face, next week’s discussion appears to have less of an economic impact than most, but Shields said public schools becoming independent may help control ever-increasing education costs. The other goal in the Sheraton series is to keep Vermonters informed.
"The mission statement of the Eathan Allen Institute is to shape public policy by informing people and that’s kind of the goal of the Sheraton series as well," he said.
In planning for Friedman’s centennial event, EAI tried to do something with a tie to school choice, and Shields said the EAI looked at what is happening in North Bennington and thought it was a "natural choice." If the public school were to close, residents of North Bennington would have the choice for their children to attend any public or private school, with public tuition paid up to a certain amount.
The event is free to the public and will be held at 7 p.m. in the Sheraton Burlington Conference Center.
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