BENNINGTON — The Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Act 46 Study Committee will continue to exist, at least for another month.
In the past month, Bennington, North Bennington, and Shaftsbury have all at least toyed with the idea of withdrawing from the committee, which was established by the SVSU board last year to study the SU's options for coming into compliance with 2015's education bill, Act 46. Committee members agreed during their public forum in Bennington on Monday, at the recommendation of Superintendent Jim Culkeen, that they hold their final public hearing, in North Bennington, at some point in April before making the decision to disband. Some board members, such as Jim O'Connor of Pownal, wanted the opportunity to discuss the issue with their boards before making a decision. That next meeting has not yet been scheduled.
Bennington resident Mike Bethel, who was sitting in the audience with former SVSU CFO Rick Pembroke and Bennington School District board member Gene Rowley, suggested that the BSD could take over the bond on Mount Anthony Union Middle School, and that students from Pownal or Shaftsbury, for example, could tuition into the BSD for middle and high school. "If you want your independence," he said to Matthew Patterson of North Bennington, "MAU needs to go away, BSD has to become a K-12. I think we can all agree on that. Do you want your independence?" The BSD voted last month to begin studying withdrawing from the SVSU, and forming its own K-12 district.
Sean-Marie Oller, who currently serves on the State Board of Education and previously was the chairwoman of both the SVSU and Mount Anthony Union boards, took the time to speak before the committee, saying, "It saddens me to look at all the newspaper articles over the last few months and see all the fractioning that is going on here. It is really disheartening. As a state board member, the idea (of Act 46) is for more opportunities, and what I see here is declining opportunities, by people going off this way and that way. I think the phrase that comes to mind, and it's an old phrase, is 'A rising tide lifts all boats.' I just can't believe that these five communities, that worked together, are having such a difficult time being able to make a decision for the 3,000 students that live in the SVSU district."
"I'd feel remiss in my obligation to the kids of this town if I don't express what I'm seeing here," said SVSU director of technology and former MAUHS English teacher Frank Barnes, "I hear words like control, and autonomy. I don't hear a lot about what's best for our kids, or support, or those kinds of words. It seems it's about what the adults think is the best for their town or their town's individual desires, and that's understandable, but it concerns me. Maybe it's because of my experience at Mount Anthony, where all of your kids show up at my door, and I see them go off to be excellent mechanics, or go to Harvard, or, one of my former students is now my physician, one is truly a rocket scientist, those kinds of things. But we care about them all, and it's very disturbing that with you guys, it seems, there's always this disconnect... I want what's best for the kids in this region, and we all should. It seems like you guys, the boards, can't get your acts together to get along and come to an agreement that will work for everybody.
"There's one thing I learned a long time ago, and it's that everybody together is smarter than one individual, and that goes for groups like this that can create something wonderful, but instead choose to have this division."
"We started out that way," responded Prue, "We listed all the reason it would be beneficial for us to come together. But for some reason, we just can't agree that they're all our students."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.