NORTH BENNINGTON >> The North Bennington Prudential Committee held a lengthy discussion last week on potential complications for their district under Act 46, and whether or not remaining with the SVSU is a realistic possibility.
Board member Matthew Patterson said that, in recent discussion with the chairperson of Winhall's school board, one of North Bennington's potential partners under the law, he was told that North Bennington would not be allowed to participate in their study committee unless they leave both the Mount Anthony Union School District and the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union's Act 46 Study Committee. The board continues to seek release from the SVSU study committee, which could be granted at the April meeting of the SVSU board, but withdrawing from MAU could be a much more drawn-out process, potentially requiring votes from all other member districts.
Under the 2015 school consolidation law, there is no clear path for North Bennington, which does not operate a school for grades pre-K through six, and instead tuitions out to schools such as the Village School of North Bennington, Hiland Hall School, and Southshire Community School, to merge with other districts in the SVSU and still maintain the ability to tuition their students for those grades. "I think the superintendent understands this, but he thinks an exception could be made for us at the state level," said Patterson, "It makes me very nervous, to wait until its too late, and hear that there's no exceptions to be made." North Bennington has been holding discussions with other potential partners while remaining part of the SVSU study committee.
"I feel like the best option for us is to be choice all the way (pre-K through 12)," said board chairman Ray Mullineaux, "Then we could join with other choice districts. Right now we can't join with other choice districts, and there is roughly no chance of finding someone like us (choice pre-K through 6, part of a union district 7-12), there are three in the state, that will be willing to come down in this direction. They're too far away, and they've got their own issues."
Superintendent Jim Culkeen said that the idea of a Modified Union District, or MUD, has been discussed recently, in which the elementary school boards would essentially vote to join MAU. "I don't know where North Bennington fits into that mix either," he acknowledged, "In my view, I can't understand why you can't continue as you are, and be a part of this, and why the law wouldn't allow that. It's an alternative structure, and we could propose it like that, but it preserves what's important to you, your school choice. We've had a number of meetings at central office over the past few days to see what that looks like.
Bruce Lierman, head of North Bennington's ad hoc Act 46 committee, suggested to the superintendent the possibility of a side-by-side district structure that would reduce the number of boards from seven to four. In his proposal, MAU would merge with the Bennington School District; Pownal, Woodford, and Shaftsbury would merge to form one district that operates K-6 and has school choice 7-12; and North Bennington would have full choice. There would also be an SVSU board overseeing all three side-by-side districts. That structure would also allow for other variations, such as if Pownal decided to join with MAU and BSD, or if Shaftsbury chose to become non-operating K-6 and join North Bennington.
Culkeen commented that that model is less simple than the MUD proposal, as it would involve dramatically altering the entire structure of the SVSU, but that it could become an option, depending on how discussions proceed from here.
The North Bennington Prudential Committee meets the second Wednesday of every month in the library at the Village School of North Bennington. Full recordings of their meetings are available on Catamount Access Television, and on the station's YouTube page.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.