NORTH BENNINGTON -- More than 75 people attended a contentious town meeting Monday on the eve of today's special vote to authorize the Prudential Committee to close North Bennington Graded School and lease the school building to an independent school.
Many in attendance directed concerns and questions to the Prudential Committee and members of the independent Village School of North Bennington Board of Trustees regarding implications closing the public school could have on two school improvement bonds after questions were raised to the board last month that closing the school could increase the amount taxpayers would have to pick up if they lost tax-exempt status, or in one case if the federal government would not continue to pay the interest if the public school closed.
The question has been researched by attorneys in recent weeks although there is no definitive answer what effect closing the school would have -- causing some residents, including district Treasurer Gail Mauricette, to request today's vote be postponed.
"I ask the board to delay this vote until we have all the information concerning these bonds. My concern is that by giving the authorization to the board to close North Bennington Graded School without the taxpayers receiving an expert bond counsel opinion on this subject, that the decision to bare this potential economic burden will be made by members of the board and not the 1,600 registered voters in the district," Mauricette said.
Members of the Prudential Committee assured residents they would not go ahead with a decision to close the school prior to an answer. If the status of the bonds does increase the burden, Prudential Committee member Matthew Patterson said the board would not ask voters to raise that money and the independent school may be asked to pick up the additional expenses through private fundraising. Numerous members of the Prudential Committee also said they would not agree to close the public school unless the change would be cost neutral.
It was also asked why questions around the bond are arising at this time when the board has considered independence for more than a year. Patterson pointed blame at others who brought the question up so close to the vote, adding that the board signed the last bond agreement in 2010 after SVSU Chief Financial Officer Richard Pembroke assured the board going independent would not have a negative consequence.
Pembroke clarified that he said he was unsure what effect it would have, and it was not until September, when the topic came up at a state meeting he attended, that made him ask Vermont Bond Bank counsel for clarification. After learning there could be a negative effect, Pembroke said he e-mailed what he knew to the board.
Chairman Raymond Mullineaux said the board's attorney Joseph O'Dea has looked into the bonds and the opinion he received from the Bond Bank is that the older bond dating back to 1996 will likely not be impacted. The more recent bond, which the federal government pays approximately $21,000 a year to cover all interest, is still a question. Mullineaux added that out-of-state counsel specializing in bonds will have to be consulted, but the board does not want to spend money on that opinion until it knows whether voters support the independent school.
"It is part of our due diligence if the voters agree to go ahead with this process, to go ahead and make that exploration and find out in fact if the bonds can be dealt with it is important to us that we do not create additional burden to the taxpayers of this district," Mullineaux said. "Without a positive vote we will not (explore) this issue because it will be moot at that point."
Others in the audience said it is difficult to support something when they do not know the impact it has.
Other areas of discussion included special education concerns about the independent school not being required to offer as many special education services, although the trustees have stated their intent is to apply to be able to offer the same services the public school may.
Concerns were raised about statements the Prudential Committee has made regarding their belief that an independent school will ensure sustainability, in part, by attracting out-of-district families who will pay tuition. The public school's policy, on advice of Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union's attorney, does not allow parents to tuition students due to the risk that the district would have to pick up expensive special education costs if a child requires additional services.
Resident Lon McClintock pointed out that the district could change its policy to accept tuition payments from parents and include a stipulation that parents must pay additional expenses. Because residents in the district will have school choice with the closure of the public school, some residents said the change could have an adverse affect.
Patterson responded that a survey of parents last year showed 97 percent would continue to send students to the independent school, and the other 3 percent were moving out of district anyway. The board was also questioned how it could be confident parents would pay to tuition their child to the independent school.
Eva Sutton, co-chairwoman of the VSNB, said parents have asked to tuition children to the public school in recent years. At least three parents said they moved to North Bennington because of the school and added that they would have paid tuition to send their child to North Bennington if they had not moved to the village and were allowed to. While the Prudential Committee said it will only approve the change if it is cost neutral, Lynn Fonteneau McCann raised concerns that voters will not have as much control after the change is made because all they will vote on is a tuition rate.
"My concern is we really don't have oversight of the budget beyond the tuition rate Your operating expenses, your salaries, things that are normally included in a budget are not necessarily going to be available for public review," she said. Brian McKenna, a VSNB Trustee, said in addition to voting on tuition, parents have the option of sending their child to another school, which gives them a great deal of control over how the independent school will operate.
The meeting continued more than two hours.
The polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. today at the North Bennington depot.
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