NORTH BENNINGTON -- North Bennington Prudential Committee member Ray Mullineaux asked the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union board at their meeting last week to reduce North Bennington's SVSU assessment for FY14 by roughly $27,000, a motion that was defeated 4-5.
Mullineaux asked the board to consider using some of the SU's fund balance to reduce their assessment to the SU, which he said paid for benefits, including curriculum instruction and professional development, that the North Bennington School district, as a non-operating district, does not receive. The money from the fund balance is typically applied to reduce what the districts pay in the next budget cycle, in this case FY16.
SVSU CFO Rick Pembroke prepared a spreadsheet to show how much more each district would pay in FY16, should the board vote to approve the $27,000 credit for North Bennington in FY14. The Bennington School district would pay an additional $7,026, North Bennington would end up paying an additional $1,014, Pownal would pay an additional $2,229, Shaftsbury would pay an additional $1,873, Woodford would pay an additional $207, and Mount Anthony Union would pay an additional $14,712, based on Pembroke's calculations.
The North Bennington school district, which is part of the SVSU, is considered to be non-operating, which means that they do not directly run a school. Instead, the district gives its children the option to attend any public or private school in the region. Currently, 118 attend the independent Village School of North Bennington, two attend Southshire Community School, two attend Hiland Hall school, and one attends Shaftsbury Elementary.
"The process for setting these assessments is in the budget time," said Pembroke, "The last two years, you set the assessments. FY14 assessments were adjusted for North Bennington as a non-operating district, so they've already received a lesser assessment in FY14 than they would have if they were operating the building. North Bennington made further arguments at this last budget go-around for FY15, and we have in fact totally changed the assessment structure on behalf of North Bennington in FY15 and going forward. There's a possibility that they may come back and ask for further adjustments in FY16 and beyond, and that's fine, that's perfectly within their purview to do that. This was a budget and a revenue assessment stream that was set up over a year and a half ago to fund the SU functions going forward. The board, per statute, set those assessment rates. If the motion is positive and you reduce their assessment by $27,000, every district in the SU will lose money in the form of a fund balance to offset their FY16 assessments."
"I always felt that we didn't have as full a conversation as we should have with the finance and budget committee about this issue," replied Mullineaux, "because it should have been resolved there, as far as I'm concerned. I wouldn't ask this, but there is going to be a surplus, so I'm asking for the discretion of this board to make this right for us."
Pembroke disagreed with the notion that North Bennington hadn't had its say, stating to the board, "The assessment stream, as I recall, was thoroughly debated, not only in the budget committee work sessions, but also at the board level. This has been agreed to. This is the eleventh-and-a-half hour, assessments were sent out last July, and [North Bennington] started paying the assessments. North Bennington has now withheld this portion of the assessment from their bill, technically they owe it to the SU unless you forgive the obligation to them."
Fran Kinney, one of the representatives from Shaftsbury, spoke up, saying, "Myself, I can't see putting more of a burden on the other districts. I understand what Ray's asking for but, myself, I'm not willing to give any more concessions on this. For being a private school..."
"We're not a private school, this is the public district we're talking about, which is the whole point," responded Mullineaux, "I will iterate the point again, although its obviously not having much impact. There are services we do not, cannot, receive for our children. They are being provided by the schools they attend. All the services thar are being billed that are not being received are being provided by these schools, and that's a considerable amount. It's a double taxation, as far as I'm concerned. I think there are none of you, if you were in this position, who would want to be paying for things that you couldn't access."
"I don't think the argument is valid," said Pembroke, "because I think the argument was made, or should have been made, or could have been made better a year and a half ago when these assessment streams were set. They were fully debated, and this body took action and said, ‘We will set our assessments at this.'"
Shaftsbury representative Dave Durfee agreed, saying, "I'm not comfortable second-guessing the decision made a year and a half ago by a different board."
The motion fell short of the majority needed to pass, with the board voting four in favor and five against, with chairman Ken Swierad abstaining. At the next day's meeting of the Prudential Committee, Mullineaux said, "We're in a position where the SU board will not accept the reduction that we think is rational. So, now the question is, do we pay it and move on, or...?" leaving the other option, legal action, unsaid. Mullineaux did note that the cost of defending North Bennington's position in court would likely be very high.
"I think you all have it a good effort to speak with reason in the face of irrationality," said chairman Matthew Patterson, who said that, at this point, he would be in favor of simply paying the $27,000. The board then voted unanimously to pay the remainder of the assessment fee.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB