Friday November 9, 2012

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

NORTH BENNINGTON -- The North Bennington Prudential Committee delayed a decision Thursday to spend money left to the school district by the late Ethel "Babs" McCullough Scott on attorney fees and other costs related to replacing the public elementary school with an independent one.

In front of an audience of about 40 people, the board announced it will wait until December to decide whether to give the independent Village School of North Bennington $25,000 and designate another $10,000 for the public district to spend on associated costs. The board then listened to comments from at least a dozen people, some of whom spoke for using the funds and others against.

Eva Sutton, co-chairwoman of the VSNB said the $25,000 would largely be spent to pay attorney fees incurred in recent months. Because the state Board of Education tabled the independent school application in May, Sutton said the application had to be revised and other work had to be done over again.

"The Village School had to look at the amended application as well as preparing for activities related to the second vote, and getting the amended application in, and the visit to the state board meeting in August," Sutton said. Sutton did specifically say the gift would not be used to pay an attorney to sue the state board for tabling its application, which the Village School has publicly threatened.

The money would also fund planned activities the independent school would hold in the fall if the school does open next school year.

The Prudential Committee's attorney Joseph O'Dea has given the board his legal opinion that the $135,000 Scott left for the North Bennington Graded School District upon her death in 2000 may be used at the discretion of the board and principal. In her will, Scott asked for the money to be "expended for the enhancement of the district at the discretion of the school board after consultation with the principal and not to be used for reduction of taxes or other equivalent tax relief."

It was debated by the audience whether using some of the trust funds to pay attorney fees was in the spirit of the donation.

"If it's deemed legal, because I guess the trust itself is vaguely worded, is it really following the spirit of this giving? The board stated at the meeting before the last vote that they wouldn't burden the taxpayers with increased costs associated with the independent school, but doesn't this spending shift the burden to the children?" district Treasurer Gail Mauricette said.

David Monks, a district resident who said he knew Scott for a long time, said the stipulations in the will were purposely vague so the district could decide how to spend it.

"She did not want to dictate what was done with it, and I think saying that it would be the Prudential Committee and the principal who would make these decisions is as far as she would ever want it to go. And I really think she would support the independent school strongly," he said.

Resident Heather Bullock, who has vocally supported of the independent school model throughout the process, said she also believes using the funds for the independent school process is appropriate.

"I think that it is in the spirit of how Babs Scott would want it delivered because we've had two positive votes on this matter. Two. And I think that really speaks volumes about how this community really wants to move forward, so it is for the enrichment of the North Bennington school community," she said.

Mauricette asked why the Village School needs a gift when it has been said many times one benefit of the independent school is the ability to fundraise. Sutton responded that because the VSNB is not yet approved it is "impossible to actually secure and ask for funds in hopes of something that would happen. I think the minute that we become identified as an independent school we'll be out raising money quickly to support the opening."

When asked by Mauricette whether the independent school will reimburse the trust funds to the public board Sutton said it is something that "could be" discussed with the board.

Following questions and opinions from the audience, Robert Howe said he was saddened by the tone of recent public discussions in which the community has expressed strong, divided opinions on what is best for the future of the school.

"I'm quite saddened about the kind of discussions we're having now about these funds and so on; (it is) not in the spirit I've always felt about North Bennington," Howe said.

Sutton voiced a similar sentiment and -- at as a petition demanding a revote is circulating in the district -- also asked everyone to come together in support of the independent school.

"Two times this community has supported the work toward the independent school and we desperately need to position ourselves to give us the best opportunity to be successful in this endeavor for the fall ‘13 for the children of this district. Everything we do to detract from that takes away the momentum of gearing all our efforts and resources towards that goal and I would implore you to support what this community has said they wanted twice so that we can move ahead and secure the resources, prepare the staff and dedicate all our time and energy we can for the fall of ‘13," she said.

Following the meeting Prudential Committee Chairman Raymond Mullineaux said the reason the board postponed transferring the trust funds was to allow the board additional time to hear from the public and weigh the decision.

Until last fiscal year when nearly $10,000 of the trust fund was used for attorney fees and other expenses related to the independent school, the trust money had been spent on enrichment activities and renovating the school's music room five years ago.

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