NORTH BENNINGTON -- In the highest voter turnout yet, residents of North Bennington Graded School District Thursday narrowly voted for a third time to authorize the closure of the public elementary school and lease of the building to an independent school.
By a 326-298 margin, voters authorized the Prudential Committee to close North Bennington Graded School after this school year. By a 332-292 vote they authorized leasing the building to the Village School of North Bennington.
Proponents of the change, including the Prudential Committee itself, rallied behind the independent model as being more sustainable due to the its ability to more easily attract tuition-paying students and raise private funds to enhance education.
"The validation for the third time is gratifying, but it is a win only in the sense that it gives us the opportunity as a whole community to face the exact same problem that we face today (of sustainability of an elementary school in North Bennington)," Prudential Committee member Matthew Patterson said following the vote.
The Village School still must be approved by the State Board of Education, which is expected to happen at its Jan. 15 meeting.
"We're looking forward to moving forward with the Board of Education and the approval, which we assume based on their comments last time will be forthcoming at the next meeting," said Eva Sutton, co-chairwoman of the Village School.
Thursday's vote followed a vote on similar questions that passed overwhelmingly in March to close the school last summer. Because the state board did not approve the independent school application by the Village School in time for the summer transition the Prudential Committee opted not to close the school.
Residents again approved questions specific to next school year in October, that time by just 26 votes. A petition calling for a reconsideration vote was submitted in November, which forced a third vote.
On Thursday about 60 more ballots were cast than in October when the school closure vote passed 294-268.
Sutton said she had some concerns the timing of the election on a Thursday would cause a low voter turnout because elections are usually held on Tuesdays, but she and Patterson said they were happy so many people showed up and got involved in this issue.
The debate to close the school created a divide among the small community as residents rallied behind both sides. Opponents to the change believe the public will not have the same control of the school because residents cannot elect the Village School trustees, attend trustee meetings nor access budget details or other information that is accessible from public schools.
In addition to sustainability, supports have said independence ensures the state will never force the school to close or consolidate, which some believe the Legislature will try to do in the future. Closure of the public school also grants school choice to all families in the district -- allowing public funds to pay a child's tuition to another private or public school.
Having now passed three times, Sutton said any question regarding the will of the community should be settled and everyone must now come together to make the independent school the best it can be for the community. "I think the hope is that everyone will now pull behind the effort since it's been three positive votes," she said.
Prudential Committee members offered the same sentiment.
"Today was about choosing a direction more than winning or losing," Glenn Chaney said.
Patterson said the Prudential Committee has not discussed when it will make a final decision when or if to close the school, saying there are still hurdles that need to be jumped. Of those will be state approval for the Village School to offer all special education services. The Village School's independent school application is only to offer three of the 12 special education categories, but the school plans to apply for every category after the application is approved.
The Prudential Committee has said it must be ensured every student who may attend the public school is able to attend the independent one for it to OK the change.
The Village School Trustees will be busy following the anticipated application approval from the state board. In addition to extending the special education services Sutton said it must appoint a full board of 10 to 15 members and address all of the transitional details, which will begin happening once its application is approved.
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