BENNINGTON -- The state Board of Education recently discussed possible statutory changes allowing it more discretion when considering independent school applications like the one sought in North Bennington to replace the public elementary school.
At its September meeting, the state board had an hour-long conversation about the motivation of public districts to effectively privatize their schools, the legal process, and the philosophical question of whether private schools that are not required to follow the same rules as public schools should receive public tax dollars.
"The question is, at a time when we're losing students, is it appropriate to use scarce dollars to allow a community to (replace its public school with a private one)?" Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca asked the board.
Some members made it clear they oppose closing a public school for the purpose of creating an independent one and then allowing state money to pay the tuition, although current law requires the state board to rubber-stamp an application if it meets the requirements.
"Exploiting a piece of law"
"The statute clearly says the state board approves private schools ... if it meets these criteria," said William Mathis, a member of the board and former school superintendent. "You can go on the Web and find a manual about how to privatize your public school in Vermont, and I think that is exploiting a piece of the law -- they're playing within the rules when they do that -- but I think it's a bad practice."
Mathis said there is substantial research that shows private schools perform at the same level as public schools when other factors are comparable. The significant difference, he said, is that the public no longer has control of the school.
"The only difference you get is who gets to govern it. If it's a public school it is not only using the public's money but it is governed by the public itself. These are the people who should be making decisions. The minute that you start giving this accountability to an outside body, to an outside board, you have then broken a link with the public," Mathis said. "In other words, you're taking away from democracy and democratic governance."
"If you have a public enterprise, publicly funded, then it should be governed by the public," Mathis said.
The conversation was spurred by efforts in North Bennington over the past year to close North Bennington Graded School and lease the building to the private Village School of North Bennington. The efforts have caught the attention of other school districts across the state and has a small handful discussing following suit. Prior to its efforts, Winhall in 1998 was the only town in the state to close its public school and replace it with an independent school.
With more districts (it was said there have been at least three or four towns other than North Bennington) inquiring about replacing their own public schools, the state board felt it was time to examine the laws more closely. The conversation was not specific to North Bennington or any other circumstance, although the example of North Bennington was brought up numerous times.
Chairman Stephan Morse said he believes the law requiring the state board to approve independent school applications if the applicant meets qualifications was not written with the idea of replacing public schools in mind.
"Quite frequently, as we did this morning, we either approve private (or) independent schools, or renew their license, and 99 percent of them have been traditional schools within a public school district," Morse said.
"I have to wonder if, when Section 166 was drafted just for that purpose, did it really envision closing a public school and creating a private school? I would guess not."
It was said that, like North Bennington, other districts are looking at the independent school model because of fear the state will force its school to close or its district to consolidate. Part of that fear came from Act 153, a voluntary consolidation law that passed last year, as well as proposed legislation that would have forced consolidation that did not receive support. The board has maintained it has no intention of closing schools although it does support districts voluntarily looking at consolidating.
Morse said he also has been told the change from a department to the Agency of Education next year has been motivation for some districts to look at change.
State board member Sean-Marie Oller of Bennington, who has recused herself from conversations specific to North Bennington's process because she is chairwoman of Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, said she doesn't understand the motivation to privatize schools.
"It doesn't make sense. It's a way to save their school and have local control. The very issue is they don't have local control, but the perception is if they have a couple of people (on the board of trustees) that's going to save that school. When, in fact, the citizens have no ability to vote on the members that oversee that school, they have no access to public meetings ... they have no minute requirements; they have no sunshine laws," Oller said. "It just flies in the face of free and public education."
Oller suggested the state board recommend to the Legislature a change in law regarding the transition process to turn public schools private, while continuing to allow them public funding.
Other members of the board agreed they want the Legislature to look at the issue and asked the commissioner and his staff to come up with a few different recommended changes for the board to look at in November.
Any potential changes would not be put in place this year nor affect North Bennington if voters support closing the public school and leasing the building to the independent school at a special election Oct. 23.
The Village School's independent school application did go before the state board in May with the intention of the school opening prior to the current school year, but the application was viewed as incomplete and was tabled. The philosophical questions of closing the public school were first brought up at that meeting.
Some in North Bennington say the state should not get in the way of a local decision to close a public school in place of an independent one, although Vilaseca said at the meeting decisions on local levels have statewide ramifications.
"Things have changed since Act 68 has come into play. We are no longer in a local community making local decisions and (paying) for those local decisions. Every local decision that is made has an impact on all of us, and we all contribute to it from the statewide education funding piece," the commissioner said.
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