Saturday October 13, 2012

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

NORTH BENNINGTON -- Whether residents vote to close North Bennington Graded School in place of the independent Village School of North Bennington later this month may depend on whether they buy into the dreary outlook regarding the sustainability of the current system.

For the past year the public Prudential Committee and Independent School Investigatory Study (ISIS) Committee have painted a picture of increasing expenses coupled with stagnant enrollment equating to the end of the thriving education offered at NBGS in years to come. That picture includes slashing programs and reducing staff in order to keep costs manageable. Or, members of the Prudential Committee have said, increasing costs will lead to greater pressure from the state to consolidate school districts and close buildings.

"Pretty soon you're going to see a reduction in classroom teachers. You're going to see reductions in the kind of programs that can exist in this building, which will fail to keep North Bennington the school that it is. It may not be that the school closes, but the essence of what this education is will be gone in time because you can't support it anymore," Eva Sutton, former chairwoman of the ISIS committee and current co-chairwoman of the independent VSNB, said at a public forum on the topic Thursday.

At the forum in the Graded School library it was clear that many who oppose the change do not agree with the predictions that the school is at risk of closure or skyrocketing taxes or diminishing programs. Many of those who sided with the public school on Thursday accused the Prudential Committee and others involved in the process of telling only one side of the story and instilling fear in the village.

Leon Johnson, a longtime member of the Mount Anthony Union school board, said he believes the previous vote in March in which 72 percent of those who cast ballots favored closing NBGS was affected by the misperception that the school was in danger of closing.

"The atmosphere that has been created is one of fear that the school system was going to close, which was one of the (factors) behind the vote and all the action that was taken -- that the state was going to be forcing the school to close. That is the atmosphere that has been created in this town," Johnson said.

When resident Jason Morrissey said the board has painted a picture that closing NBGS is imminent if voters do not approve the independent school, Prudential Committee member Matthew Patterson and others argued that it has not been said the school will have to close, only that it is in danger.

"Closure is not imminent. We're trying to get ahead of the curve. Nobody on this board has ever said closure is imminent, because that's not true," Patterson said.

Describing the school's closure as imminent may not be an assertion the board has made, although the Prudential Committee has stated it believes the school will be forced to close. "It is our belief that the North Bennington Graded School District will be targeted for consolidation and this would ultimately result in closure of our school in the mistaken belief that our students could be served just as well educationally and more efficiently at a regional elementary school determined by the consolidated board," one letter sent to residents last September states.

Heather Bullock, a parent who has attended many meetings on the subject and has been a vocal supporter of going independent, said she does believe the school could be closed if nothing is done because of pressure from the state.

"We need to think about that in this community because we're kind of a small, little school. There's a great possibility this can happen down the road," she said.

Johnson said he has heard people voice similar concerns that the state will force consolidation, but he pointed out that according to current law that is not permitted.

"All I want you to do is make sure everybody truly understands both sides before they make the vote," Johnson told the board. "The only people that can close this school is (residents of) North Bennington."

The suggestion that either the Prudential Committee of VSNB trustees created any misperception drew the ire of officials.

"It has never been our intention to politicize this. It has always been our intention to educate the residents of the North Bennington School District about the options available to them," Sutton said.

The chairman of the Prudential Committee, Raymond Mullineaux, echoed those words.

"We have not tried to generate fear. We have tried to inform the public of what our choices look like down the road, based on looking at the kind of programing we provide and trying to sustain it given the decline in our (enrollment)," Mullineaux said. "We are trying our best to educate people about what the choice is."

Richard Pembroke, chief financial officer for Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, also questioned the integrity of financial projections that led to the dreary forecast for the public school.

Those projections show the tax rate in North Bennington increasing 35 percent over the next five years, but Pembroke said there are some "seriously flawed" assumptions used to create them.

Principal Thomas Martin took offense, saying he did the projections using conservative assumptions and it is clear that a flat enrollment with increased costs will lead to higher taxes. Pembroke said his office would be happy to do its own projection for North Bennington before Martin accused Pembroke of refusing such services a year ago.

"It's interesting, Rick. I asked you to do that this past year and you weren't willing to," Martin said.

"No, what you asked me to do was develop the Village School's budget, and I said I will not touch the independent budget," Pembroke replied.

By that point Mullineaux, acting as moderator of the forum, told Pembroke to "shut up," and ended the conversation.

Thursday's format, which was set by the Prudential Committee, allowed only audience members who live in the school district to speak, which kept most of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union administrators in attendance from asking questions or offering opinions.

The only supervisory union administrator in attendance from North Bennington was Robert Marine, director of after-school programming for SVSU, who took his residency as an opportunity to suggest the forum may be more informative if others could to speak.

"This feels to me more like a political rally where I get one point of view and all the questions are answered in that way, and it seems like it would be (more fair) to the North Bennington residents to actually hear more people's opinion," Marine said. "We have the superintendent here, financial director here, the department heads here."

Mullineaux responded that later in the meeting there was time on the agenda designated for that opportunity, although the opportunity was never granted.

A letter from SVSU Superintendent Catherine McClure intended to aid in the Prudential Committee's planning process for the forum, which raises a number of potential concerns, was distributed at the end of the meeting with responses from Mullineaux and Sutton. That letter is available at www.svsu.org as an FYI under the SVSU board meeting packet for Oct. 18.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi