Friday November 9, 2012

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- The Bennington School District board talked Wednesday about revitalizing the former Beech Street School, which has housed supervisory union administrator offices in place of students for the past quarter-century.

The idea, proposed by board member George Sleeman, was part of an ongoing discussion the board has had over recent months due to a projected classroom shortage that looms on the horizon.

The school district is projected to be short five classrooms when enrollment is expected to be at its peak during the 2015-16 school year. The shortage will begin next fall with a need for one additional room.

At a meeting last month the school board asked Chief Financial Officer Richard Pembroke to draft a request for proposal for an architect to design a 10,000-square-foot addition on Bennington Elementary that could hold up to eight classrooms. The project, Pembroke estimated, may cost $2 million to $2.5 million and would require a bond.

The other short-term fix the board talked about last month is paying tuition for students to attend elementary school outside of Bennington where surrounding towns would gladly accept more students to reduce their own costs.

Before the school board invests in architects or seriously considers paying other schools to educate Bennington’s children, Sleeman said other options must be explored. Among those is whether the former Beech Street School may be able to take care of the projected classroom shortage.

BSD has leased the building to Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union to use as the Central Office for administrators the past 25 years. There is nothing that would prohibit BSD from turning the building back into a school, although the cost of doing so may be significant as it would need to undergo renovations. Questions were also raised whether it would be up to code to use as a school.

Sleeman said his idea to look at the building was generated from questions he has been asked by the public, and said there may be reasons the building would not work as classroom space, but it is worth taking a look.

"I’m not recommending the Beech Street School. I’m merely saying that people in the community have asked me to bring it up and they’ve asked the question, ‘Do we own the building?’ and the answer is yes, and, ‘Has the board at least explored that as a possibility?’" Sleeman said. "Should we not at least explore that possibility?"

The board agreed to ask Bennington Building Inspector Larry McLeod to do a walk-through of the building with board members to get an idea of what improvements would have to be made to use the building as a school.

The building is already handicap accessible and includes a handicap bathroom.

There was some question of how much the building would benefit the district even if it were usable because of its small size. Pembroke said the building could, theoretically, hold four classrooms upstairs, and possibly another one downstairs.

When the building was a school the downstairs held the gymnasium and kitchen, according to Jerry Prue, BSD’s director of building and grounds.

Prue questioned how effective the education model in the school could be due to its size and the fact that students would have to be pulled from another school to attend classes there. The board did not discuss what grades would be in the building, or the possible transitions from one school to another.

"(The Bennington Elementary addition) to me it is a much better dollar spent than even looking at the Beech Street School, even if we could put four to five classrooms up there," Prue said.

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