NORTH BENNINGTON -- Following accusations the executive director spoke negatively about the North Bennington Prudential Committee and then denied it, the Prudential Committee unanimously voted to void its membership to the Vermont School Boards Association.
"We have it on good evidence that the person who runs the Vermont School Boards Association has said derogatory things about this board and lied to one of our board members when he asked him about it," Chairman Raymond Mullineaux said at Thursday's meeting. "I personally do not want to belong to an organization where the executive director treats member boards that way."
As a sign of protest, Mullineaux said he would prefer not to be a member of the VSBA this school year. The board later voted 4-0 against authorizing a $1,133 check to cover the VSBA membership fee, which will likely make North Bennington the only public school district in the state not to be a member this year.
Friday, VSBA Executive Director Stephen Dale said he was familiar with the board's feeling but denied the accusations.
Dale said that after he had introduced himself to a member of the Prudential Committee at a state Board of Education meeting earlier in the year, that member said they heard Dale had called the board "despicable," or another similar, strong word.
"I said I didn't believe I used that language," Dale said.
"I have no idea where they got it from. I just don't know when it would have been said or in what circumstance. I don't remember saying anything of that kind," said Dale, who is in his second year at the helm of the VSBA.
Mullineaux did not get more specific about the alleged incident and declined to elaborate following the meeting. Board members Glenn Chaney and Seth Gabriel both said during the meeting they were unaware of the incident Mullineaux was referring to.
"I don't know a thing about it," Chaney said.
Board member Matthew Patterson hinted that the VSBA has not been in support of North Bennington's desire to close the public school and lease the building to an independent school.
"They've demonstrated their level of advocacy against independent school investigations," he said.
On Friday, Dale said the VSBA actually supports the exploration of independent schools by public boards if they believe it will benefit children and the community. While doing that exploration, Dale said, it is important there be clear lines to separate the public and independent boards, which is a concern he has raised about the North Bennington process in the past.
"What I have expressed concern about is it is also important a publicly elected body, the agents of the community, always have the interest of the community and the children at the forefront of the decisions they make," Dale said. "I felt like at a state board meeting, in part, the local board was taking responsibility to advocate for the private institution."
Other than the appearance that the public and independent boards were not working at arm's length, Dale said he supports the process in North Bennington. He also said the concern regarding forced consolidation that prompted the board's exploration is legitimate given discussions in Montpelier over the past decade about consolidating school districts.
"I understand why boards are nervous about what's going to happen in the future," he said.
The two most important concerns Dale said school boards have are to support quality education and the interest of taxpayers, both of which Dale believes North Bennington is considering.
North Bennington will likely be the only school district in the state that is not a member of the VSBA this school year, although Dale said membership applications were just recently sent to boards. Last year all 288 districts were members.
The VSBA provides support for school boards, acts as a collective voice for the development and implementation of education policy and advocates for high quality public education.
In addition to offering training and making educational resources available to member boards, the VSBA also keeps school boards informed regarding proposed legislation, new laws and other changes through newsletters.
Yet, the North Bennington board said it does not see the benefits to be worth the $1,133 membership fee.
"I'm not sure what they've done for us recently, except to cause rancor," Patterson said.
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