NORTH BENNINGTON >> The North Bennington Prudential Committee is considering withdrawing from the Mount Anthony Union District and could seek to form a full choice K-12 district, which will help them find better partners under Act 46.
"It's no secret that we felt that the only way to seek our destiny under Act 46 was to find some way out of the current structure," said board vice chairman Matthew Patterson, who represents North Bennington on the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union's Act 46 Study Committee, "If the current structure were to form their own, we would be an outlier and would not be allowed to be a part of it." As a district that is non-operating and offers school choice for grades K-6, North Bennington would not be able to merge into a preferred model with the other districts of the SVSU and still retain their choice, something North Bennington representatives have said from the beginning of the process is very important for them.
North Bennington has already formed its own ad hoc study committee to consider ways to come into compliance with the 2015 education bill, but the law states that a school district can only officially be a part of one study committee at a time. Therefore, in order to receive a grant from the state for their own legal work, the district would have to withdraw from the SVSU study committee.
Patterson said that time is growing short, as potential full-choice partner districts in the region are looking to move forward with their own plans, and can't afford to wait on North Bennington. Because of that, he said, the district does not have time to go through the current legal process involved in withdrawing from MAU. "We really want to meet the expectations of Act 46, we just can't do it as it stands," he said.
The board wrote a letter to State Senator Brian Campion, who serves on the Senate Education Committee, asking for help in this regard. "The Prudential Committee of the North Bennington Graded School District would like to withdraw from the Mount Anthony Unified Union District. We're seeking this action, as we believe it is the district's best path forward to comply with the requirements of Act 46. We are respectfully respecting the support of our legislative delegation to provide relief in this legislative session from current Vermont statutes that require affirmation from all member school districts before an individual school district can withdraw from a Unified Union District." They argued that only four districts in the state have a similar structure to North Bennington, and that none of them are located nearby, and that being a full-choice district would give them better ability to comply with the law. Furthermore, they said, the process for withdrawing from MAU as it stands now is lengthy and would not be possible within the timelines laid down by Act 46.
Patterson called the meetings of the SVSU study committee "productive," but said that, even before the Bennington School District announced last week that they were exploring seceding from the SU, it had become clear that, "Everybody felt as though they've done all of the consolidation, and they think they could request consideration to keep things just as they are. And, who knows, that could be true, but we're still a black sheep, so we think that we need to act urgently to do something else to do something else, to find something else, and we cannot do that officially until we are relieved from our participation in the SVSU Act 46 committee."
Bruce Lierman, head of North Bennington ad hoc committee, wrote a letter to the SVSU study committee, which Patterson suggested should be edited by the board before being sent. As it stood on Wednesday, however, the letter read, in part, "The (SVSU) has suffered from a lack of trust and communication in the past, and clearly there are still issues that are not being discussed and resolved frankly and openly. Part of this caution and distrust has to do with the diversity of our districts. Based on our size, locations, and citizens, we often hold very different views of various policies and mandates that confront our SU. Our study committee has become a manifestation of our weaknesses in communication. Assumptions are being made concerning the level of agreement, on our response to the goals and requirements of Act 46. The North Bennington study committee does not believe either the goals or requirements of Act 46 can be met with our existing governance structure. Our current three-tier board structure (SVSU, MAU, then the individual districts) is exactly the kind of complex structure Act 46 aims to simplify.
"It is also becoming clear that the interests of all districts on the study committee are not the same," Lierman's letter continues, "Smaller districts want to control their future and ensure the sustainability of their community schools. Larger districts want appropriate representation in setting SU policies and direction. Our non-operating district wants to maintain the opportunities and choice it offers our families. We are willing to continue to work with the current study committee if it begins to recognize and address these competing goals. We continue to believe a governance proposal can be developed that recognizes the goals and requirements of Act 46, as well as the aspirations of all member districts. We can only do this if we are all working toward that end."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.