BENNINGTON -- To meet an anticipated classroom shortage that looms on the near horizon, the Bennington School District board may ask voters to approve funding a 10,000-square-foot addition to Bennington Elementary.
If voters do not support the addition, which could cost in the ballpark of $2 million to $2.5 million, the board may be left paying tuition for some of Bennington's children to attend elementary schools in neighboring towns.
The addition would alleviate what is expected to be a shortage of rooms beginning next school year when there is likely to be a need for one additional room. In the 2014-15 school year the district will be short three rooms, and the following year there is an anticipated shortage of five rooms. The shortage is expected to persist until 2020, according to student population projections distributed by Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union administration.
If a two-story addition -- with a footprint of 5,000 square feet -- were added onto the east side of Bennington Elementary where the playground is, it would likely hold eight classrooms, according to Chief Financial Officer Richard Pembroke. Plans for the addition were considered in 2007 when architectural renderings were done for improvements to all three schools in the district.
At a rough estimate of $2 million, Pembroke estimated the impact on tax rates would be an increase upward of 2 cents for the 20-year life of the bond. A 2-cent increase would mean a person owning a $100,000 home in Bennington would have to pay an additional $20 in taxes each year.
The school district authorized Pembroke to put a request for proposal out to architects to come up with a preliminary design for the addition, and the hope is to expedite the process so the district may ask voters to approve a bond during elections in March. If approved, the hope would be to break ground in the spring and complete the addition in time for fall 2014 when the classroom shortage will no longer be manageable.
A number of other alternatives were briefly discussed at Monday's school board meeting, including modular classrooms or leasing space elsewhere in town. Zoning requirements would require modular classrooms to be put on a permanent foundation and would have to be tied into the school's water and sewer, as well as its fire alarm system, which would likely cost around $150,000 per unit, Maintenance Director Jerry Prue said.
The district has rented classroom space in the past, which George Sleeman suggested the board look at, but others were less supportive of the idea of separating some students.
Another option was taking back classroom space in Molly Stark that the supervisory union uses for its early education program. Some board members, as well as Early Education Director Karen Burnell, said moving the program that includes mostly Bennington children would pose programmatic problems.
The other option the board faces is allowing some families who live near the town lines to attend school in a neighboring town. Board member Laurie Cohen was adamant that if voters could not support an addition, tuitioning students elsewhere -- which would also increase costs in Bennington -- is the only other option she would support.
"We're not doing the right thing for them by squeezing them into a building that is not part of the school. We're not doing the right thing for them to make our classrooms grow beyond what we suggested was the ideal limit," Cohen said. "If we're not going to make investments in our own schools, and we can't accommodate them in accordance with what we've set as guidelines for kindergarten or primary levels -- that we have small classrooms for the right kind of instruction and the most attention that they can get -- it seems to me we either build and spend or we let them go. But to hold them back and put them in a building that isn't a school ... and separate them from other students, I think is the wrong approach and we should seriously consider tuitioning them."
"We can give up the tax dollars and let the students go that way, or we can tell our town we're going to build schools that can accommodate our students. We can't have it both ways," Cohen said.
The addition is considered a short-term fix for the aging elementary schools in Bennington. As the board has agreed to at previous meetings, Pembroke said Monday ultimately all of the buildings need to be invested in or replaced. There was discussion of including money in next year's budget to have architects draw blueprints of either a new school that would replace both Molly Stark Elementary and Monument Elementary, or putting an addition onto Monument and building a smaller Molly Stark so each school in the district would educate approximately 300 students.
If the blueprints were done next year, Pembroke said they could be held onto until the state is able to help foot the bill.
"There's currently a moratorium on construction aid. The only aid that is currently available is for emergency purposes ... or if there's a consolidation it's a 50 percent reimbursement instead of a 30 percent reimbursement, but even if you do qualify for that ... all they're going to give you is an I owe you right now. They don't have the cash," Pembroke said.
In addition to building needs, the board also touched briefly on changing the programmatic approach at the buildings to change all three schools from offering kindergarten through fifth grade to make one school, likely Molly Stark, a K-2 school and the other two educate grades 3-5. This summer a dozen kindergarten students were registered within a week of classes beginning and most of them had to be placed at Molly Stark as it was the only school with space. Having all kindergarten students attend the same school would alleviate such problems.
Members of the board, administrators, and teachers are expecting to visit Rutland where such a model exists in coming weeks. Since first discussing the change earlier in the month, Cohen said she has heard concerns from many parents who oppose the change.
In order to alleviate the problems of kindergarten registrations next school year, administration talked about having centralized registration and assigning schools later in the summer than usual, instead of asking families to register their children with specific schools.
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