Saturday March 16, 2013

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

NORTH BENNINGTON -- Attorney fees for work related to the transition from a public to an independent school has, for the second time in recent months, led the public school board to tap money entrusted to it by the late Ethel "Babs" McCullough Scott.

Thursday, after objections were voiced by the school district's treasurer Gail Mauricette, the Prudential Committee unanimously agreed to transfer $10,000 from the trust fund into the district's general fund to pay for legal expenses. The decision mirrors action last December, when the board transferred $10,000 to its general fund to pay for attorney fees. At that time it also gave $26,000 from the fund to the independent Village School of North Bennington Board of Trustees to pay its legal expenses.

Prior to that decision in December, many residents told the board at a meeting they did not believe legal expenses were an appropriate way to use the trust funds. Just Mauricette and one other resident spoke in opposition to the money transfer Wednesday.

Scott's will asks that the money she left the school district be used "for the enhancement of the district at the discretion of the school board after consultation with the principal and not to be used for reduction of taxes or other equivalent tax relief."

Whether paying legal expenses related to closing the public school is "for the enhancement of the district" is a point of contention -- with public opinions on the matter aligning with people's opinions of whether an independent school is an appropriate way to proceed.

The Prudential Committee wishes to close the public school this summer and lease the building to the Village School because it believes an independent model is more sustainable. It contends that an independent school can attract tuition-paying students from outside the district and fundraise more easily. If nothing is done, the board argues, the public school is at risk of closing in coming years due to increased costs and the potential for changes in state law.

With sustainability in mind, the board believes expenses related to the closure of the public school benefit the district by increasing the likelihood that a school continues operating in the same building.

"I believe that it's consistent with what the community has decided and consistent with our belief that this is in the best interest of the district and the students in this district," Chairman Raymond Mullineaux said.

Fellow board member Matthew Patterson echoed a similar sentiment. "I feel stronger now than ever that the use of this money towards the goal that we seek is more important than ever for the benefit of the students in this school," he said.

Others who do not believe the public school risks closure argue the trust money would be better suited to be spent on equipment the children can use, as it has been in years past.

"I would like to remind you that you were elected to a public board to oversee the public school and yet you have done nothing to preserve these funds left to the public school," Mauricette read from a letter to the board. "As treasurer of this school district, I have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers to safeguard public money. As board members you have a fiduciary responsibility as well. It is my belief that the continued use of these trust funds in this manner is inappropriate and irresponsible."

Mauricette also asked why the board is not pursuing fundraising efforts from those who support the independent school to pay for the transition. The board did not answer the question.

The $10,000 transferred Wednesday will pay the district's attorney, Joseph O'Dea, for work related to researching the impact closing the public school would have on two school improvement bonds as well as future work the district anticipates O'Dea will be needed for.

It was not stated that more money would be required for legal fees. However, if that need arises, Principal Thomas Martin believes the board could use money raised through taxes as an alternative to the trust fund.

"You've had three votes authorizing this initiative to move forward ... there' s a point where you're now acting as a duly elected board fulfilling the wishes of the community. You could make a compelling argument that this is an appropriate invoice to be paid out of your general fund," Martin said.

The board has resisted using local money for expenses related to the transition so far. However, Patterson agreed the general fund may be used if more money is needed.

"In the future if there are other expenses that are accrued due to further issues or resistance to our hopes, it probably would have to come from the taxpayer dollars," Patterson said.

With the Village School receiving approval from the state in January and voters having already authorized the closure of the public school, the next hurdle for the Prudential Committee will be to find a way to reduce the expense of not operating a school. The Prudential Committee has pledged not to close the school if tuitioning students is not cost neutral, however the most recent non-operating budget showed it would cost the district about $100,000 more if the public school is closed.

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