NORTH BENNINGTON -- Residents of North Bennington Graded School District will be asked Oct. 23 whether they want to replace the public elementary school with an independent school.
The public Prudential Committee had decided not to include ballot questions to close NBGS and lease the building to the Village School of North Bennington as soon as 2013 on a ballot for the general election in November or the Town Meeting ballot in March. Instead, the ballot questions regarding the proposed school transition will be the only subject voters have to consider at the special vote next month.
While it is known what the questions will ask, the board has yet to finalize the way in which they will ask them. Wording of the ballot questions is expected to be approved at a special meeting Sept. 11. Prudential Committee Chairman Raymond Mullineaux said board attorney Joseph O'Dea has drafted the questions but has not received feedback from other attorneys who were asked to review the articles.
Holding a special vote is not expected to cost much more than including the questions in with an already scheduled election. The Prudential Committee agreed that separating out the school questions makes the decision a focal point that cannot be overlooked as it might alongside a presidential election.
Waiting until March would also make the transition rushed if voters approve the change to take place in the fall, as the State Board of Education still must approve an application from the Village School in order for the change to be final. This March, voters approved similar ballot questions but the State Board did not approve the application in time for the change to take place by this fall.
Tuesday's Prudential Committee meeting drew more than a half dozen residents mixed in their support of and opposition to an independent school model.
Many of the concerns voiced Tuesday were ones that have been raised throughout the past year as the Prudential Committee explored the change.
Mike Fenwick said he is against allowing a self-selected independent school board of trustees make decisions about the community's school.
Others said they want more information related to tuition costs and expenses taxpayers will incur through the change. Joyce Scarey requested the Prudential Committee also assemble a document detailing how much money it has spent investigating the change, including costs paid to its attorney.
Leon Johnson, who is a North Bennington representative on the Mount Anthony Union school board, said he does not understand what the benefit of changing the current structure is.
"If you're doing what you're doing now, and you're successful at it, why are you going to expose the taxpayers and anybody else out here to something we're not sure of," Johnson said. "Everybody needs to be aware there are going to be lumps and bumps and pains associated with this change."
Bruce Lierman offered an alternative perspective. "Many of the risks of what we're doing, or what this community is contemplating doing, have been expressed and addressed. But what I think has been inadequately addressed are the risks we have with the status quo. Currently, we're transferring a great deal of money to the (Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union) to receive services from them. I have considerable doubt as to whether or not we are receiving the quality and quantity of services that money would normally address, so there's a risk there in terms of the fiscal structure of the school," Lierman said.
He also said the sustainability of NBGS is a question mark if a change does not occur, because enrollment has been dropping and consolidation of schools is being pushed by the state.
The fear of forced school closure has been expressed by members of the Prudential Committee, although authority to close a public school, under current state law, lies entirely in voters of a district.
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