BENNINGTON -- This year was a tumultuous one for local schools. Here are the top four issues that were cause for contention or perhaps a tension headache, if you are a parent to a school-aged child -- plus a few smile-inducing good deeds to remind you of the good things happening in our local schools:
* Residents of the North Bennington Graded School District voted last January, for a third time, to authorize the closure of the public elementary school and lease the building to an independent school, now known as the Village School of North Bennington. The process, which took a total of two years to come to fruition, culminated in the closure of the North Bennington Graded School on June 30 of this year. In the four months since its inception, the independent school has flourished -- its students excelling on state tests and its staff working hard to foster an environment conducive to both education and creativity.
* Bennington Police and Vermont State Police investigated allegations of in-school mistreatment of 8-year-old Nathan Reilly, a Bennington Elementary student with autism.
The investigation was spurred in March after Reilly's family hid a recording device in his backpack and let it record throughout an entire school day. The nine-hour recording revealed mistreatment of Reilly at the hands of two special education paraprofessionals, who left the boy secluded for long periods of time, said he could go "days" without food or water, and told him to clean urine off the floor.
The recording resulted in multiple Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union staff members being placed on administrative leave, one termination, and the unplanned retirement of the supervisory union's former special education director, Kathleen Buck, who has since been replaced by Wendy Pierce.
No criminal charges were pressed at the culmination of the investigation in July.
* The Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union began its search for a new superintendent of schools following current Superintendent Catherine McClure's announcement of her retirement.
McClure announced her decision not to extend her contract past June 2014 in late August, at which time she stated she would remain superintendent through "an effective transition."
Last month, the SVSU made progress towards hiring a replacement for McClure as well as a human resources manager -- a position created in hopes of alleviating much of the stress McClure cited as a challenge throughout her tenure.
McClure is assisting in the search along with members of a screening committee made up of board members, principals, teachers, office personnel, parents, and community members.
* The Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union is also in the midst of a superintendent search after the board voted at the end of October not to renew current Superintendent Karen Gallese's contract past the end of this school year. The decision was made during an executive session and board members still refuse to cite specific reasons behind the decision.
In November, Gallese said she was "confused" and "shocked" about the vote but remains optimistic for the future and confident in her work within the Arlington district.
Over the past few months, the board has slowly made progress towards hiring a replacement for Gallese.
Two weeks ago, a representative from the Vermont School Boards Association spoke to the members about the formulation of a job description. A week later, the board voted last week to officially hire a full-time superintendent, as opposed to a part-time superintendent.
And now for some acts of kindness from area schoolchildren in the last calendar year:
* Fifth-grade students at Bennington Elementary School held a penny drive to benefit Filipinos affected by Typhoon Haiyan. Over the course of two weeks, the group of 37 students raised more than $150 which was donated to Bennington's Red Cross Disaster Action Team, who later sent the money to national headquarters collecting funds for the typhoon victims.
* For the sixth year in a row, students, faculty and staff of Mount Anthony Union High School "adopted" local needy families and purchased gifts off of the wish lists of over 100 Bennington children enrolled in Molly Stark Elementary and The Village School of North Bennington. The gifts, which included everything from book to toys to clothes, will be delivered to each of the schools this week.
* Students from the Bennington School, a local youth development organization in Old Bennington, partnered with the Town of Bennington in November to revamp the Willow Park pavilion. Together, the students and town employees worked for three days to replace the shingles on the roof of the more than 40-year-old structure.