BENNINGTON >> The Bennington School District board held a special meeting on Tuesday, and saw the public come out in force to express their opinions about the board members' actions last week, in which they voted no confidence in the superintendent and to explore withdrawing from the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union and forming their own K-12 district.
Board members have not commented on their reasoning for this vote, which Superintendent Jim Culkeen said took him completely by surprise, citing only, "actions taken at the SVSU level and the BSD level that are detrimental to the BSD." However, a source close to the situation confirmed earlier this week that the actions of Culkeen and the SVSU board that led to SVSU Chief Financial Officer Rick Pembroke being placed on administrative leave were what led to the board's actions. As a third motion last week, the board also voted to explore getting representatives proportional to the number of students from Bennington, or roughly 66 percent of the whole, on the SVSU and MAU boards, should seceding from the SVSU prove impossible.
Assistant Superintendent Donna Leep, who was targeted in the vote of no confidence alongside Culkeen, was the first member of the public to speak at the meeting.
"To date," she said, "I do not have any information on what these alleged acts are, and no evidence indicating truth in the accusations. Mr. Culkeen and I have worked consistently to follow SVSU policies to provide a safe, respectful, and productive work and school environment throughout the SVSU... Mr. Culkeen and I are committed to do what is right for our students, our staff, and our community to continue to build excellent educational opportunities. We greatly appreciate the outpouring of community support."
Also speaking was Bennington's assistant town manager, Dan Monks, who spoke as a private citizen. Saying he felt very strongly about the issue, Monks told the board that he felt that both, "the public and Culkeen deserve to know why you took the actions you took." When board member Jackie Prue said that the board could not comment on the reasoning behind the decision, because it was a confidential personnel matter, Monks fired back, "If it's a personnel matter, keep it in executive session, don't make these public accusations."
Several members of the audience, including Bennington Banner Publisher Ed Woods and SVSU Technology Director Frank Barnes, expressed agreement with Monks' statement. Two board members, Genevieve Plunkett and Jackie Kelly, expressed agreement as well.
Past Select Board candidate and local activist Mike Bethel disagreed with Monks, pointing out that the board was acting in the best interest of transparency, and that the public has a right to know that the board is dissatisfied with the administration.
Toward the end of the meeting, when the discussion had turned to Act 46, and how the BSD could potentially use the law to form its own K-12 district, Plunkett said she needed to express what she felt was going to be an "unpopular opinion."
"That's going to cost us money, to look into a lawyer," she said, "and I want to be sure that we're spending our money the right way." She said the board should be spending money in a way that directly benefits the children of the school district, and that the board needs to have a conversation about its priorities.
Prue explained that the issue of representation was an important one for the BSD board to address. "The Bennington taxpayers are not properly represented on those boards," she said.
Kelly suggested that the member boards of the SU should work together, saying, "Getting together makes us all better, because it saves us money." She said the BSD should move forward to create a new K-12 district, but said other towns should be invited to join. "We've been trying to do this for 25 years," she said, "We have to get the mind-set that all SU students are our students."
Board member Gene Rowley was openly skeptical of other towns choosing to give up their autonomy to join Bennington, calling the idea, "utopian."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.