MONTPELIER -- The State Board of Education approved the independent school application for the Village School of North Bennington Tuesday -- a major step toward replacing North Bennington Graded School with an independent school by fall.
Eight months after tabling the Village School's application last May, the board voted 5-2 to approve the Village School for the 2013-14 school year following more than an hour of testimony from residents on both sides of the issue.
Approval of the Village School came after three positive votes from school district residents to authorize the Prudential Committee to close the public elementary school and lease the building to the Village School. When the Prudential Committee will decide whether to take that action has yet to be decided. The Prudential Committee still must create a budget and see what the Village School's tuition rate will be, among other factors Chairman Raymond Mullineaux said it will consider, but the expectation is the Prudential Committee will go forward with closing the public school.
"The articles put the decision in our hands and I think this is still a community decision, basically. We have to review everything that's before us -- is it still the right action for us to take -- and that's what we'll be doing," Mullineaux said. "I think we're inclined to do it because we believe in the proposals that got put forth, that they're ultimately in the best interest of the district and our students. I truly believe that this school, which is already very good, can become spectacular. That's my hope."
Even as members of the state board and Agency of Education said they do not philosophically agree with the idea of replacing a successful public school with an independent one, those same officials acknowledged the state board, by statute, had to approve the application.
"I am philosophically against what you're doing. I think it goes counter public education, it goes counter to everything I believe in," Education Secretary Armando Vilaseca said. "But my position as the secretary and the commissioner was to recommend what is within the boundaries of the law."
State board Chairman Stephan Morse said the law requiring state board approval of independent school applications was not written for the purpose of replacing public schools, but because the laws are clear and the Village School met its obligations the state board had to meet its obligation.
Following the vote, Eva Sutton, co-chairwoman of the Village School, said the board's action now allows the Village School trustees to concentrate on its structure, securing private funding, filling the remaining governing seats and qualifying for all special education categories. The school's application only includes three of 12 special education categories, but Sutton said the intention is to offer the full spectrum so no child in the district is denied.
Proponents of the Village School view it as a more sustainable model because of its ability to raise private funds and attract tuition-paying students from outside of the district. In addition to growing pressure from the state to consolidate services in order to cut costs, Prudential Committee member Matthew Patterson said a day will likely come when local residents vote to close the public school if costs keep increasing and the school continues to cut positions as it has in recent years.
"Sustainability is a major struggle for smaller schools. We have never said that closure is imminent (unless local residents vote to close the school), and that's what will happen. When the cost of education per pupil creates an unsustainable amount, people will vote to close their own school and they will not have the recourse at that point that we're trying to (give) proactively, instead of reactively," Patterson said.
A handful of school districts around the state have been closely monitoring the process in North Bennington as they consider similar actions. Tuesday's decision by the state board could set off a ripple effect unless the Legislature changes the laws -- which Vilaseca and many members of the board said they hope happens this legislative session.
"I do hope that our legislators this year take a look at what occurred in your community to not allow state dollars -- because we're all paying into the system as you are paying for my community as well -- to allow a public school to close (so that it may be replaced by an independent school as a way to) step outside some of the requirements that public schools have," Vilaseca said.
Patterson, who testified in favor of the Village School, and then in favor of the process the Prudential Committee undertook, disagreed.
"If the interest of the State Board of Education and the secretary of education and the governor is to see the best education that we can give to our students, then this ought to be a model that ought to be looked at and not run away from because we are convinced that the Village School of North Bennington can provide a better education than what we are currently looking at with more opportunity for children," Patterson said.
The only previous case in which a public school has given way to an independent school in Vermont happened more than a decade ago when the Mountain School in Winhall was created. The success of that transition depends on who is asked -- as school officials point to high statewide test scores and a low cost-per-pupil. On the other hand, the public district has been saddled with debt for many years because of an influx of families who have bought property in Winhall because there is not a designated school and then used public tuition dollars to send their children outside of Winhall.
Patterson said what has happened in Winhall will not repeat itself in North Bennington because there are not vacant houses and North Bennington is not a ski community.
Vilaseca was not convinced. "I look forward to seeing what your tax rate with your budget looks like. (If you look at) Winhall as an example it will be skyrocketing costs," he said.
Even though the AOE said the Village School's application met all of the statutory requirements two members of the board -- Sean-Marie Oller and Bill Mathis -- still voted against it.
Mathis explained he could not understand how the goals of sustainability will be met by an independent school or how there will be more financial stability with the change.
"I don't see how you can make that happen," Mathis said. "And if you look at the research on school choice in rural areas, people gravitate out of rural areas such as North Bennington ... I just don't logically see how you can save some money."
Oller, who is chairwoman of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union board, of which North Bennington is a member, opted to vote Tuesday after recusing herself the previous time the independent school application was before the board. Oller stated that she has voted on renewing other independent school applications within the SVSU territory, so she was not in conflict. Oller stated she did not believe a sufficient review had been done to warrant the application's approval, including how the AOE reviewed the Village School's financial capacity.
Similar to some members of the public who testified against approving the application, Oller also took issue with the Prudential Committee's lease agreement with the Village School for $3.50 per square foot of the building.
Oller also said she has philosophical opinions she did not support the decision, although those were not what she based her vote on. After the meeting, Oller said, "approving this independent school, allowing a viable public school to close, is not what the state board should be doing. This will haphazardly erode our Vermont public school system."
In contrast, Sutton said the change will do the oposite and she hopes the state will not limit the same opportunity in other towns.
"We think it's a good model so we think everyone should do it that it makes sense for," Sutton said. "I hope the door doesn't close for those distrits that want to pursue this."
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