Thursday February 21, 2013

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Two veteran school board members are vying for one open Bennington seat on the Mount Anthony Union school board this Town Meeting Day.

Outspoken challenger Edward Letourneau Jr., who has often criticized the MAU board and administration in recent years, hopes to bring changes to the board by unseating soft-spoken incumbent Robert Sherman, who has been on the board for eight years and intends to continue advocating for education.

Robert Sherman

Sherman has sat on the MAU board since he was appointed in 2005 to fill a vacant term and has since been re-elected three times. He is currently the board clerk and a member of the MAU Finance Committee.

The Bennington native wants to continue his time on the board as a way to give back to the community in which he grew up and help improve educational opportunities to ensure the youth of this area are prepared for college or the workforce.

Sherman, who often spends more time gathering information from all sides of an issue rather than making loud pitches during board discussions, said his goal is to make rational decisions based on facts rather than come to quick conclusions.

"I like to learn the facts and listen to all of the arguments before making a judgment," he said.

In his professional position as a clinical coordinator of pharmacy services at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center Sherman works with a budget every day, which gives him insight to help with school budgeting.

"I have that financial background of how to give and take and what services are important and where funds need to be allocated," he said, "and my years of experience on the board, I feel, has given me a better understanding of how education is funded and where it’s going in the future."

With a son in first grade -- more than four years away from entering the MAU district -- Sherman said he looks at his responsibilities on the board from the perspective of both a taxpayer and parent. Sherman considers himself in the middle of the aisle when it comes to balancing educational needs and fighting to control costs taxpayers will have to bare. However, with every decision Sherman tries to keep in mind the reason he originally ran for election, which he said was to ensure a Bennington education leads to opportunities for graduates.

"I understand the importance of balancing cost and educational needs. It’s a fine line," he said. "I’m passionate about not sacrificing education to save money ... I believe education is the ticket to opportunities."

Sherman believes one of the most significant issues the board will have to address in the coming years is how to help a rising special education population while not allowing those needs to overburden the budget. As federal grants dry up, he said, it will not be an easy task.

Edward Letourneau Jr.

Letourneau, who has served eight years on the Southwest Vermont Career Development Center school board, outlined a number of changes he would like to bring to the MAU district, beginning with curbing costs that have been on the rise in recent years.

"I think that taxes are getting out of control in the community and it’s time to stop relying on other people to do something about it and get in there and find out what’s going on," Letourneau said. "Everybody who’s on a school board or any elected office has taken an oath of office ... and testified you will do equal right and justice to all persons and I really think we have people on boards (who) are not recognizing the taxpayers as people and doing equal right to them."

Letourneau, who works for GE Energy in Schenectady, N.Y., said every dollar spent by MAU should be looked at and evaluations for every position and program should be done. Through that process, he expects, efficiencies could be found, however Letourneau said he already has a number of areas in mind where spending could be cut.

His list starts at the top of the high school where there are five part-time assistant principals in addition to a dean of students and a principal. The structure was put in place in the summer of 2010 when the board replaced a full-time assistant principal with five part-time positions that were assigned different areas of focus. "If we have a top administrator and now five assistants to do what one or two used to do ... I certainly think we ought to find an administrator that doesn’t need five assistants, or I need a good explanation as to what has changed in the environment and the culture that requires that now," he said

Another way expenses could be reduced, Letourneau said, would be cutting some classes that are duplicated at the technical center, where he believes they are less expensive to operate.

Letourneau said MAU and the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union also need to look harder at an outside efficiency report done two years ago that included dozens of recommendations. Specifically, one recommendation he would pursue is reducing the number of SVSU administrators.

Letourneau would also like to see increased academic standards at the high school based on conversations he has had with parents whose children graduate with honors and then have to take remedial courses in order to be accepted into college programs.

"They need to raise the quality of education," he said.

One way to do so is increase graduation requirements or install something like the Regents Examinations they have in New York.

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