BENNINGTON -- Public and independent school officials in North Bennington fielded questions Thursday from a standing room only crowd regarding the Oct. 23 vote to close North Bennington Graded School and lease the building to an independent school next fall.
Tempers flared at times as people passionate for and against the change shared their views, aired concerns and questioned the benefit of an independent school. To the dismay of some, questions were cut short after more than two hours.
Many questions from the group of approximately 50 residents centered around the proposed Village School of North Bennington's plans for inclusion of all students who live in the school district.
The independent school's application to the state, which has yet to be approved by the state Board of Education, includes a plan to offer special education to students who fit within three of 12 special education categories. Some parents expressed fear children outside those three categories will be excluded from the independent school -- which unlike public schools is not required to offer special education services -- but VSNB officials said the goal is to educate every child in the district and expand its special education offerings if needed.
The three categories the independent school is seeking approval to offer in its application, trustees said, will cover all of the students currently enrolled in the public school.
"In the event a child with a disability moves into the district or comes to our door that is not in one of those three, what I was told (from the Department of Education) is that we could seek an amendment to add that category. Now, I have every reason to believe ... that is exactly what we would do," said NBGS Principal Thomas Martin, who is also expected to be headmaster of the VSNB. "Our commitment is to educate every child in North Bennington."
Martin added that the original intent was to apply for all 12 categories but it was the recommendation of DOE staff who assisted with the application to limit the initial services to three categories.
Similar concerns were raised in a letter distributed by the Prudential Committee at the end of the forum from Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Superintendent Catherine McClure. In response, Eva Sutton, co-chairwoman of the VSNB board of trustees, wrote that it is the intent to accommodate all students and expand the school's special education services if required to meet a student's need.
Many questions were asked by the public about why the Prudential Committee would endorse closing the public school, which is among the highest performing in the state. Prudential Committee and VSNB members acknowledged the success of the school, but said there will soon come a time when it costs too much to operate without hurting programs.
"Our goal all along has been to preserve what we have and build on it. This goes back to thinking about what the implications are if we don't do anything at this point, that as a community we feel it would be hard to sustain the kind of tradition of excellence that we have," Sutton said.
Martin said with the ability to fundraise and increase enrollment, which supporters believe will be a result in going independent by attracting out-of-district students, there will be more money to expand programs instead of cut them. As a public school, Martin said there is no way to control how many children enroll.
The audience was curious about what the tuition to the VSNB would be, although Martin explained that budget development has yet to begin so the tuition, and variance in tax rate, will not be determined prior to the Oct. 23 vote. If the public school had been closed this school year, Martin said, it would have shaved a penny off the tax rate.
The concern of losing local control was brought up by residents who do not want to lose their right to attend school meetings, vote directly on the school's budget and elect officers to the school board.
"I can't help but choke on the irony of, ‘we need to do this change to keep local control of our school,' but I don't get to vote on the trustees, the budget was pretty much a mystery, there's no open meeting requirement. To me, that kind of flies in the face of local control," North Bennington resident Jason Morrissey said.
VSNB Trustee Daren Houck, who is also headmaster of the independent Mountain School in Winhall, said he sees the independent model offering as much local control as the current system because parents still vote on tuition rates and have the option of using public tuition to send their child elsewhere if they choose. Because residents have school choice, Houck said the independent school is required to meet the needs of parents in order to stay in business.
Because The Mountain School is the only other independent elementary school in the state, comparisons were drawn between it and the local situation.
Prior to closure, Houck said Winhall's public school was among the lowest performing in the state, had about 35 students and had the highest cost per pupil. The Mountain School, Houck said, now has 85 students, the second lowest cost in the state and is among the highest achieving schools.
When asked, Houck acknowledged the public school board in Winhall did run a deficit for many years due to unforeseen enrollment increases caused by second home owners claiming Winhall as their residency and then taking their tuition dollars out of town. Houck said such a situation is unlikely in North Bennington because it is not a resort town like Winhall.
"Please understand as far as North Bennington goes, you don't have the amount of homes here to cause that type of scare," Houck said.
A second public forum is scheduled for the evening of Oct. 22, the night before the special vote.
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