BENNINGTON >> The Town of Bennington and the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union will host a community forum to discuss Act 46 on Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Bennington Fire Department. All are welcome to attend.
The forum comes after a tumultuous several months, in which the districts of the SVSU have sought to find fair and equitable solutions for how to come into compliance with the 2015 education law, which allows the Secretary of Education to consolidate districts against their will if a plan is not approved by the Agency of Education by November 2018.
The SVSU had a formal Act 46 study committee, but it officially disbanded last month in order to allow North Bennington to leave the committee and seek options elsewhere. According to the AOE's interpretation of the law, North Bennington cannot merge with the other districts of the SU so long as it maintains school choice and they do not. However, SVSU legal counsel Steve Stitzel has said that the study committee cannot reform without North Bennington so long as the village remains part of Mount Anthony Union. North Bennington Prudential Committee Chairman Matthew Patterson has said that he will be seeking an alternative legal opinion on that count.
In order to leave MAU, North Bennington must schedule a community vote. If that vote passes, each other community that is a member of MAU — Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury, and Woodford — must vote to approve their leaving. If any one of those communities' votes fails, North Bennington cannot leave the MAU. No vote has yet been scheduled.
SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen has promised that by Tuesday's forum, the SU will have prepared a financial overview of what the effects on different communities could be in the event of different consolidation scenarios. Some of those potential scenarios include: All the districts except North Bennington merging to form a single district, with one board and one tax rate; Bennington absorbing MAU and forming a K-12 district, which would exist in a side-by-side supervisory union with a new district made up of the towns of Shaftsbury, Pownal, and Woodford, which would operate the three elementary schools for grades K-6, and either tuition to Bennington or have school choice for grades 7-12; or Shaftsbury joining with Arlington to form a new supervisory district. Arlington is not a part of the SVSU, and is currently considering its own options, including joining the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union. In any scenario, North Bennington would have to find its own partners, likely among the K-12 choice districts of the BRSU.
"We're at a crucial juncture at this point," said Culkeen, "Time is ticking by, and there are so many different options and possibilities. I will say this, I don't think the intent of the law was to take one supervisory union and divide it into three, but with some of the suggested combinations, that's the way it's going."
Representatives from the Agency of Education, Principal Assistant Donna Russo Savage and Education Finance Manager Brad James will also be present for Tuesday's forum. "Donna Russo Savage was employed by the Vermont legislature when this bill was written," said Culkeen, "She was one of the contributors, drafters, writers of this bill, so she is very familiar with this law. She was hired by the AOE when this law passed, and she oversees the process and implementation, so I'm thrilled that she is coming."
"My hope is, by the time the legislative session convenes that this supervisory union, the people here, will have a position they can put on the table that the legislative delegation can run with and defend," State Rep. Bill Botzow, D-Pownal/Woodford, said last week, "It will be a lot harder if there's no position put out there. That would be the hardest place to affect positive change in any laws as they get reviewed. So I really encourage people to do their best work together. As I've always said, I consider us merger, but I don't consider the merger to be perfected. There are places where the supervisory union could do even better, and be more effective at both delivering opportunities and being cost-effective. That's the grail."
"I don't think anybody would have contemplated the idea that a supervisory union that was one would end up becoming two or three," he said, "It's just nonsensical."
The Bennington School Board has discussed attempting to rescind the vote that disbanded the study committee, after consultant Steve Sanborn said that he would not work with the SVSU if they did not have a formal committee.
"None of the boards are anxious to change what they have now, except North Bennington," said BSD member George Sleeman, "So why are we belaboring this thing? Pownal doesn't want to change. Woodford doesn't want to change. Bennington doesn't want to change. And I don't think Shaftsbury really wants to change, I think they like what they have right now."
"Right now, the tail is wagging the dog," said BSD member Gene Rowley, "The little towns are having a grand old time spending Bennington taxpayer money. The only way that it will ever be correct for the town of Bennington and for the Bennington taxpayers is for Bennington to form it's own pre-K through 12 district, dissolve the SVSU, and let the rest of the towns do whatever it is they want to do. Because if it continues the way it is and the state comes down and squashes us all together, the town of Bennington will be responsible to pay the 70-whatever percent of all the towns' (special education) bills, because they're going to force us to. Right now, as the law is written, we're not saving anything. The state is not going to be content to let us sit here. They're going to come down, they're going to collapse all our boards, they're going to force us into one board, and we're going to have to pay 70-whatever percent of everybody's budgets. The town of Bennington is getting beaten up enough as it sits now."
Last week residents of Shaftsbury held their own public forum, in which the community learned more about the act and its implications, and discussed various ideas. One idea that was popular with the 30 or so residents in attendance was the concept of transitioning Shaftsbury to a independent academy, like the Village School of North Bennington, and joining North Bennington as a unified pre-K through 12 district. That would take time, more time than Act 46 allows, but beginning that process could prevent the state from forcibly consolidating Shaftsbury into the other districts, as the law says that districts cannot be forced to give up choice, according to Patterson, who was present at that meeting. If Shaftsbury merged with any combination of other districts, including Bennington, Pownal, Woodford, or Arlington, on the other hand, it could preclude that choice, as the Shaftsbury district would no longer exist, and could not become non-operating. That group will continue to meet moving forward, but their next meeting has not been scheduled.
— Contact Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.