BENNINGTON >> The Bennington School District Board has voted no confidence in Superintendent Jim Culkeen and Assistant Superintendent Donna Leep, and voted to establish a committee to study withdrawing from the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union and creating an independent district under Act 46.
After an executive session for personnel on Wednesday night, to which the superintendent was not invited, the board returned to vote unanimously for no confidence in Culkeen and Leep, citing "actions taken at the SVSU level and the BSD level that are detrimental to the BSD."
Board member Jackie Prue acted as the spokesperson for the board on the subject.
"We've been meeting," said Prue, who is the chairwoman of the SVSU's Act 46 study committee, "We're not making much headway. Most boards feel that we should stay the way we are. That's the feeling I've been getting from the communities when we go to the communities. But they have been very civil... It's looking like they want to keep it the way it is. We haven't voted on it, but that's the way I feel it's heading."
Board member Gene Rowley then read a prepared motion: "I make a motion that the Bennington School District seek legal counsel independently of the SVSU council, to investigate how the Bennington School District can secede from the supervisory union and form a pre-k through 12 district. I make this motion because of recent actions taken by the SVSU board and the superintendent James Culkeen. We pay well over two-thirds of the cost to operate the SVSU, and we do not have proportional representation. We believe their recent actions are detrimental directly to the BSD."
"When you go to a Mount Anthony meeting," said Prue, "we have only a few representatives, it's not done according to the number of students we have in the district. You go to the SVSU meeting, we have two votes, and Woodford has two votes, for 30 kids, and we have two votes and over 800."
"It should be a weighted vote," said Rowley.
On the MAU board currently, Bennington has four seats; Pownal, Shaftsbury, and North Bennington each have two seats; and Woodford has one. On the SVSU board, each district, including MAU, is represented by two members and an alternate. The exception is North Bennington, which is represented solely by Ray Mullineaux and alternate Matthew Patterson.
The board noted that Bennington alone has enough students to meet the requirements of the Agency of Education's preferred model under Act 46, and the other districts in the SVSU would have enough for their own district if they joined together or with Arlington.
"It would be the same as it is now, except it would be ours," explained Prue. "If Shaftsbury and Pownal, or whoever, want to send children to our high school or middle school, they would tuition in. This is the way the Bennington School District was years and years ago, before they built Mount Anthony."
Prue said the community would have more control over their own students' education.
When board member Jackie Kelly asked if this system would be less expensive for Bennington, Prue and Rowley replied they had no idea, and that that would be one of the things the new committee would investigate.
"We're not going to solve it and form a pre-K through 12 district at this table this evening," said Rowley.
Six of the board's seven members voted in favor of the no confidence vote and to establish the new committee. Only Kelly, who had not been sworn in after the previous day's election, abstained.
Prue made a second motion after the vote which read: "I move that we also have the counsel we hire research how to change the structure of the MAU board and the SVSU board to proportional boards by student population, in case we can't become a K-12."
That motion also passed unanimously, save for Kelly's abstention.
In an interview on Thursday afternoon, Culkeen said that he could offer no insight into what prompted the board to make these motions now, or what the "actions" taken by him and Leep the board was referring to. "They made the motion after entering into an executive session to which I was not invited," he said, "I look forward to meeting with the board members and discussing their reasoning."
Prue said that, unfortunately, she could not discuss the specific reasons for the vote, only saying, "It had to do with personnel and it affected us directly." She said that there were many questions involving how, legally, BSD seceding from the SVSU would work, but that legal counsel should be able to clear up some of those questions.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.