In January, I started attending informational meetings regarding changing our North Bennington Graded School into an independent or private, non-public school. Since I was curious about the information given at the informational meetings, I decided to speak to others in and out of the education field. This evolved into my attending more Prudential Committee meetings.
Very quickly, I concluded, based on the facts, that the information being put forth by both the Prudential Committee (North Bennington’s School Board) and the individuals who’ve spearheaded the drive to create an independent school, is at best misleading and in most cases incomplete.
I learned at the State Board of Education meeting in May that there are no plans to close the North Bennington public school, nor has it been spoken about at the Department of Education or the state board. At each meeting I have attended, the Prudential Committee and the advocates for the independent school have stated the closure of NBGS was imminent. This is not true. There are also no plans to consolidate the elementary schools in Southern Vermont. No plan exists, at any level by any outside agency or board, to close NBGS. It is the "imminent closure" of NBGS (that doesn’t exist) that so many advocates of the independent school use to promote their cause.
I’d like to pass along to the district voters this information:
1. Public oversight of the independent school will be virtually non-existent. The Village School of North Bennington, if approved as an independent school, will be funded by tax dollars, but the independent school trustees will not be accountable to the public nor will they be elected by the citizens in the North Bennington School district. The independent school is not required to share information on how they are spending public monies. As an independent school they don’t have to comply with open meeting and open records laws. They are not required to hire certified teachers nor take every child who applies
2. The "school choice" component of the independent school is greatly overstated. If the voters agree to "close the North Bennington Public school," the district becomes a non-operating school district and allows choice to an approved independent or public school paid for by North Bennington residents. Students from North Bennington will only be allowed to attend other "independent, non-secular" schools, unless other districts allow for the student to tuition in (which means your tax dollars will leave North Bennington to support other schools).
North Bennington children can attend other private or public schools but cannot choose religious schools such as Sacred Heart St. Francis or Grace Christian School. When a student "chooses" a school in another school district in-state or out of state, the North Bennington school board will pay for that student to attend another school outside of North Bennington. School choice is not a strategy for improving public schools: Rather it is often an option when an area cannot afford to operate its own school.
3. Where is the budget? The independent school system has not put forth a full budget for the consideration of the voting public regarding the proposed independent school in 2013-14. Without a full disclosure of the financing of the school, how money is to be raised and how it is to be spent, how is it possible to even consider a new, independent school? What is the hesitancy to release such information?
I’d also like to make you aware of a policy change in the North Bennington Non-Resident Admission Policy. The current policy, approved in 2007, does not permit children living outside the district to attend NBGS at the parent’s request. Children from outside the district may attend the school if their parents pay the per pupil cost to operate the school to North Bennington. The new proposed policy will allow a 6th grade student who has moved out of North Bennington and completed the 5th grade in North Bennington to return to enter the 6th grade even though the family lives in another district, this is at no cost to the family; in other words they will attend tuition free. Since when did the public school offer scholarships?
Why are North Bennington taxpayers paying more for these children’s education than their own parents? Currently, there is a policy in all the school districts that allows a child to finish the school year if the family moves out of the district during the school year. The reason for the change in policy is because a family has moved to Bennington, another will have moved by the start of the school year. The children have completed the 5th grade and the parents have asked that the children be admitted into the 6th grade, even though these families no longer live in North Bennington, nor do they pay taxes to the North Bennington School District.
The board has said this is only 1 or 2 students; my response is this is not the point. Who absorbs the costs for these children? The North Bennington tax payers will (and not their parents). NBGS is not broken; it’s a wonderful school with very good teachers. Published test scores have indicated good outcomes. Why disrupt this system? Public education is the foundation of democracy and the civil right of each child. Every child deserves a free and public education and we need to keep it that way! North Bennington does not need to close its public school. Again, I have to ask what is the motivation of the current school board to close our school?
What could be the motivation of those trying to institute the changes? North Bennington residents and business owners have largely avoided the decreases in property values that have plagued most of the country over the last several years. This is in large part to the perception of the current school system, and the fact that the school, as it is today, is highly performing. There is simply not a demonstrated need to institute the changes that are being foisted upon the citizens of North Bennington, and the voters in North Bennington need to have a larger understanding of what the changes mean to them.
Indeed, the Prudential Committee and the advocates for the independent school are on a slippery slope when they seek to institute the changes they are proposing.
Please attend meetings, ask questions as I have done, and be informed. The next North Bennington school board meeting is Tuesday, Sept. 4, at 1 p.m. in the school library. A Special Election date and Non-Resident Tuition policy change will be decided at this meeting.
Joyce Scarey lives in North Bennington.