NORTH BENNINGTON -- A question and answer session with school officials turn into a heated debate on Monday as several local legislators visited the Village School of North Bennington.
Vermont Sen. Richard Sears, and state representatives Alice Miller of Shaftsbury, Brian Campion of Bennington, Mary Morrisey of Bennington, and Anne Mook of Bennington joined principal Tom Martin and several members of the school's board of trustees and the town's prudential committee were invited to the discussion.
Also in attendance were assistant principal Mike Johnson, prudential committee chairman Ray Mullineaux, board of trustees chairwoman Meg Woolmington, and trustees Jeanne McWaters, Brian McKenna, Don McKenna, and Pete Niles.
Unable to attend do to time conflicts were Sen. Robert Hartwell, representative Bill Botzow of Pownal, Rep. Timothy Corcoran of Bennington, and Rep. Cynthia Browning of Arlington.
Before the event started, Campion, who is on the state education committee, expressed interest in learning more about the Village School, especially the early results of its transition from a public school to an independent school, saying, "It was very controversial last year, even in Montpelier." Campion added that the state legislature was wary of the situation, but is viewing North Bennington as a test run to see if a model such as the one being implemented at the Village School could improve education around the state.
Three members of the school's sixth grade student congress, Dylan Perkins, Maxwell Perry, and Sam Wilkins greeted the legislators. The three students led the group on a tour of the building, stopping in each classroom to visit with students, most of whom were enjoying snack time.
The legislators then headed back to the school's library for presentations by students. A group of six costumed fifth- and sixth-graders presented in character biographies of famous people as part of their, "Night of the Notables," project. Sixth grade teacher Pat Gibbons, who has been running the project since its inception, noted that trustee Brian McKenna was actually her first Mohandas Gandhi.
"In our age of role models, very often popular people fall short of how we'd want our children to behave," said Gibbons, who said that the project allows students to learn about some of best role models of all time. The historical figures who attended the event were Apple CEO Steve Jobs, fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien, Titanic survivor "Unsinkable" Molly Brown, astronaut Sally Ride, inventor Leonardo Da Vinci, and scientist Albert Einstein.
"The magic of kids being excited about learning just carries [the project]," said Gibbons.
Gibbons also noted how many of the people her students study had to overcome incredible adversity to reach their goals. "That poverty is not something that gets in the way of greatness is an important lesson for kids to learn," she said.
When the student portraying Jobs, sixth-grader Jacob Bendik, made a remark about all the students taking the audience into consideration and shortening their speeches, Campion joked that, "We should bring him up to the legislature."
The third grade class then sang a song they use to help them remember multiplication tables, and the first grade taught the assembled legislators about a collection of dinosaurs and other large lizards.
Once the students had had a chance to show of what they were learning about, business became more serious.
"We're certainly aware of the fact, much to my dismay, that North Bennington has been at the center of a lot of conversations, especially up in Montpelier," said Martin, who touted the school's steady enrollment during the transition to being an independent school. "What's important to us," said Martin, "is that North Bennington residents chose to send their students here."
Tuition at the Village School was $12,938 for this school year, and will remain at that level next year. "As a public school," said Martin, "our operating cost was about $200,000 more."
Miller brought up the budget, and asked how much the tax rate in North Bennington was going to be increasing in fiscal year 2015. Mullineaux said that the finalized budget would result in a 16-cent increase on the tax rate. Martin was quick to note that, "As far as the Village School, we are holding our expenses flat."
Mullineaux and Martin explained that about eight cents of the increase came from the state, and the rest was due to several teachers who retired as a result of the North Bennington Graded School district becoming a non-operating district, which ate into the school's available fund balance.
Miller questioned that the school was doing everything to keep their budget down, noting the school's 11-1 student-teacher ratio, saying, "In my experience, anything below 15-1 can hurt students, because kids learn from other kids."
Mullineaux responded to her criticisms, saying, "If we were still an operating district, you would be seeing a lot more than 16 cents. I feel that we've made steps in the right direction here, and we're going to continue, because we want this school to succeed in this community. I truly believe in local control. I feel that the state is moving away from that, unfortunately, and I disagree. I believe everyone has the right to control the education of their children. I don't believe top-down control is going to work, we need more people from the grassroots."
Miller responded heatedly, banging on the table for emphasis, "That's the monkey on your back, the tax rate. There are people here who cannot afford a 16-cent increase. You need to get this under control."
"The question is," said Martin, "is it what we're doing here, in these halls, that's driving these costs? Or is it the focus on consolidation, and the increasing bureaucracy? I'm not exaggerating; we had to get approval from Homeland Security and NATO to serve school lunch. It took six months for approval to receive money from the state for free and reduced lunches. The man-hours being fed into this bureaucracy are doing nothing for students."
Campion took a moderate view of the situation, describing the process of driving the tax rate down as a dance, in which both the state and the schools had to play their part.
"The disparity between the rich and the poor has never been higher," said Miller, "The federal government is cutting everything, so we [the state] have to make up the difference, because we don't want people to freeze to death."
Mullineaux expressed hope that the state would allow the Village School to continue doing things their way, saying, "I think we will bend the curve if we are allowed to survive, if we can find a way to survive."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB.