Thursday January 3, 2013

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

NORTH BENNINGTON -- About 40 residents in the North Bennington Graded School gymnasium on the eve of today's vote were separated down the middle by those who support replacing the public elementary school with an independent school and those who do not support it.

Today is the third time residents of the school district will head to the polls to decide whether to authorize the Prudential Committee to close the public school and lease the building to the Village School of North Bennington beginning next school year.

The majority of questions and comments at Wednesday's town meeting were similar to those made in March, when voters first approved such measures by a wide margin, and in October, the night before a second ballot passed by just 26 votes. At times, half of the audience applauded comments made on one side of the argument, and moments later the other half of the audience would applaud to its counterpoint.

As they have for the past year, proponents including the Prudential Committee contest that an independent model is the only way to ensure the state does not force the school to consolidate or close. Current legislation gives sole authority to close a school to voters of the district, but proponents argue that could change any year as the state continues to seek ways to save money.

"We have an opportunity while the window is open now to ... control our future and destiny, rather than hope for the idea that somewhere along the line maybe legislation doesn't go through," said Robert McKenna, a district resident and parent of Brian McKenna, who sits on the Village School's Board of Trustees. "I'd rather make that choice for ourselves."

Supporters also argue the change will help lower taxes in the future because of the ability of the Village School to more easily raise private funds and accept tuition students. Eva Sutton, co-chairwoman of the Village School board, said every year the public school receives requests from families outside of the district who want to send their children to North Bennington so she is confident families will choose to send their children to the independent school as well. She also said private donors are already inquiring about donating money, however the Village School has yet to raise money and recently relied on a $26,000 gift from the public district to pay attorney fees.

The Prudential Committee also supports the change because the closure of the public school would allow parents and children in the district school choice. Without a public school, Prudential Committee Chairman Raymond Mullineaux said, parents will be able to take public money to pay tuition to a public or private school of their choice.

Opponents have largely argued against the independent model because the public will no longer have as much input.

"If North Bennington Graded School goes independent we lose our voice in decisions being made about our neighborhood school. Currently we are able to be a part of the democratic process that allows us to help elect officials to the school. We're going to lose that ability if the school goes independent. We are guaranteed by law official notification of school board meetings and can participate in discussions of how our tax dollars are spent," Laura Boudreau said.

Sutton said ultimately the Prudential Committee, and those who elect it, retain control because the public board can stop leasing the building to the Village School if they are not pleased with how it operates.

Those opposed to the change have also cast doubts on fears the public school will ever be forced to close or that the independent model will not cost taxpayers more.

District Treasurer Gail Mauricette pointed out that Winhall, where the only other independent elementary school in the state is, has seen significant tax increases amounting to more than 12 percent the past two years and the town has run a deficit numerous times since closing its public school. "I don't believe this is a successful model," she said.

Concerns that not all children may be able to attend the independent school were also raised because the Village School is only seeking approval of three of the 12 special education categories in its independent school application to the state. Sutton reiterated that the school plans to apply for every category once the school is approved by the state. Mullineaux said the only way the Prudential Committee will move forward with closing the public school is if all students who would attend the public school are able to attend the Village School.

In March voters approved similar ballot questions to authorize the public school closure and lease to take place over the summer but the State Board of Education did not approve the Village School's independent school application when it was on the agenda in May so the transition did not take place. In October residents again approved those questions -- that time by just 26 votes -- but a petition submitted in November signed by more than 5 percent of the electorate called for a reconsideration vote.

Polls are open today from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the village depot.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi