Wednesday November 7, 2012

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Bennington School District decided to wait. Then, Shaftsbury School District said it wanted a generator being given away by Mount Anthony Union Middle School. Then, Bennington said it wanted it as well.

On Monday, as members from each elementary district made their cases of why they should be awarded the 125-kilowatt generator the middle school replaced last year, the MAU school board was forced to chose who to give it to.

Tiebreaker

The board voted, but was split 4-4.

Chairwoman Sean-Marie Oller, who often excludes herself from voting other than to break a tie, was left with the responsibility to cast the deciding vote. Oller, a Bennington resident, chose Shaftsbury.

"I believe Bennington had the opportunity to get it if they wanted it. It ended up in Shaftsbury because Bennington didn't originally want it," Oller said Tuesday when asked about her decision. "From watching the first two BSD meetings, it didn't seem as if they wanted it. Their priorities were not with the generator, they were concerned with the cost of installing it. And Shaftsbury did want it."

The generator saga began after MAU gave Chief Financial Officer Richard Pembroke authority to sell the generator to a sending school district for $1. BSD was first asked on Sept. 6 if it would like the generator to install at Bennington Elementary. The hitch, which caused the school board to hesitate, was an estimated $35,000 to $50,000 bill to install it.

Members of the board debated whether it was wise to spend that much money on a generator when there was a list of infrastructure improvements needed.

With the town declining to help defray installation costs, the board held off accepting the generator until receiving assurance Bennington Elementary would be designated an emergency response shelter if it installed the generator. No members of the board said they were not interested in the generator but the majority agreed to wait for more information despite Pembroke's recommendation to accept it.

The following week Pembroke asked the Shaftsbury board whether they were interested. Some of the same concerns were raised about costs, although Chairman Francis Kinney said he expects installation costs to come in below $25,000. The board voted 4-1 to accept the generator, with Patrick Harris voting "no" because he wanted more information.

The next week, on Sept. 17, Bennington Town Manager Stuart Hurd attended BSD's meeting and told the board the town does hope to designate Bennington Elementary as a second emergency shelter. During Tropical Storm Irene last year there were concerns the Walloomsac would rise so high that access across the river would be cut off, which made the town begin to seek a shelter south of the river in addition to the middle school to the north.

After speaking with Hurd, the board voted unanimously to accept the generator.

Since then, Pembroke has had conversations with emergency response officials in Bennington and Shaftsbury to try to determine the greater need, but on Monday he asked the MAU board to make the decision.

Timothy Holbrook made the motion to award the generator to Shaftsbury because "they were the first to ask for it after Bennington said they didn't want it." Holbrook also said the generator would be a necessity for Shaftsbury, which does not have an emergency shelter with a generator. Without the generator, residents would have to drive south to the middle school or north to Arlington in case of an emergency.

Ken Swierad, who sits on the MAU board and is the BSD chairman, tried to make it clear BSD never said they did not want the generator, but instead wanted more information. He also argued that Bennington, which has more than 15,000 residents, has more people who could benefit from it. Residents of Shaftsbury, he said, could drive to the middle school more easily than people in the southern part of Bennington could get to a shelter if the river did not allow travel to the north.

Peter Frantz, of Woodford, said he was uncomfortable Shaftsbury was even in the mix as he understood BSD had expressed interest but was waiting on more information.

"If the river is viewed as being a dividing line in an emergency situation like that, it makes more sense to me to have it at BSD. Shaftsbury is not that far away via East Road down to the middle school," Frantz said. "I was under the impression BSD was pursuing this."

Kinney, who also sits on the MAU board, said Shaftsbury should get the generator because it was the first to vote to accept it.

MAU board member Nelson Brownell, who is also a longtime Select Board member in Pownal, said being the first district to say "yes" should count for something.

"I think he who hesitates loses here," Brownell said. "I think Shaftsbury made a move quickly, they made the right decision. Why should we punish them for that because now somebody comes in later and says, ‘hey, I want it now.'"

Brownell also said small towns can become isolated in an emergency and it is important they are protected.

Brownell, Holbrook, Oller, Kinney and fellow Shaftsbury resident David Durfee voted in favor of the motion to give the generator to Shaftsbury, while Bennington residents Swierad and David Fredrickson, as well as Leon Johnson and Frantz opposed.

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