BENNINGTON — Members of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union's Act 46 Study Committee said at their meeting on Tuesday that it is still to early to predict whether a merger would save districts any money.
Mike Bethel, a resident of Bennington, asked Act 46 consultant Steve Sanborn if, in the event of a merger, Bennington would end up paying 70 percent of all of the other districts' expenses, including construction projects. That 70 percent represents approximately the percentage of SVSU students who are from Bennington. "That's the key for any citizen of Bennington to vote for this," he said, "We're basically throwing the baby out with the bathwater, for no guarantees that this will save one dime, and it may even hurt us." He advocated for keeping the structure as it is now.
"When we get our finances done that will be answered," said Sanborn, "but I can't tell you that tonight."
"Whether we decide to consolidate or we decide to remain as we are, this is something we have to do," said Chairwoman Jackie Prue, "We have to do these studies, we have to go through this process, it's something the state is mandating. We have to prove we have done all this stuff if we decide to stay the same. That's why we're sitting here right now. We may consolidate, and hopefully we can come up with something, but we may not."
"But we also have to know the true facts," said Bethel.
"We are working on that," responded Prue.
Earlier in the meeting, Bennington community representative Donald Campbell requested that an item be added to the agenda, namely how the committee would handle North Bennington, which is unlike any other district in the SVSU as it does not operate an elementary school. This district instead has school choice, with its students attending primarily the independent Village School of North Bennington.
"There are a lot of difficult issues we have to work through," said Campbell, "But I see a possible path to consolidation with Shaftsbury, if they so choose, and Woodford, if they so choose, and Pownal, if they so choose. But I don't see a path to North Bennington. I don't see any path that gets us there that meets their goals and what I think are the goals of Act 46." He suggested the committee write a report saying that a merger with North Bennington is impossible, that the SVSU should disband and then reform without North Bennington.
"You don't need to go through the process of doing that," said Sanborn, "You could continue on if the towns of Bennington, Pownal, Woodford, and Shaftsbury all agree to unify, and North Bennington chose to bring it to the voters and voted no, you'd still have a unified district with those people who voted yes."
North Bennington representative Matthew Patterson explained that the ideal scenario for North Bennington would be a non-operating district pre-K through 12, with school choice through all grade levels. This would require both leaving the Mount Anthony Union District, where North Bennington students currently attend for grades 7 through 12, and finding other non-operating districts to partner with under Act 46. The North Bennington district cannot join other study committees while it is part of the SVSU study committee.
Sanborn said he would seek clarification on if there was a way for North Bennington to leave the committee. Additionally, he promised to look into, if the other districts formed a new Modified Unified Union District, if that would automatically release North Bennington from MAU, or if community votes would still be required. His findings will be discussed at the study committee's next meeting, scheduled for Aug. 30.
— Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.