NORTH BENNINGTON -- Residents of the North Bennington Graded School District will be asked for a third time to authorize the Prudential Committee to close the public Graded School and lease the building to the independent Village School of North Bennington.
A petition requesting a revote on those two ballot questions was submitted by resident Joyce Scarey to the district clerk Tuesday morning with signatures of more than the required 5 percent of the electorate.
Clerk Gail Mauricette said the petition has 130 signatures on it -- exceeding the 82 required by law for a revote and allowing for some signatures to be disallowed if determined to be not those of registered district voters.
"Those signatures represent all those that feel this school should remain a public school like it has for the last 100 years," Scarey said. "They want to be able to elect people (as opposed to the self-appointed Village School Board of Trustees) and want to have access to meetings and records."
On Oct. 23, residents voted 294-268 to authorize the Prudential Committee to close the public school. The revote petition began circulating the following day.
Prudential Committee Chairman Raymond Mullineaux was made aware of the results after the petition was turned in.
"I'm disappointed, but it is a democratic process," Mullineaux said.
Scarey, who has been among the most vocal opponents of closing the public school, said she believes the tight vote could swing in the other direction as more information comes out and more people become aware of the impact.
Thirty-five percent of registered voters cast ballots on Oct. 23 and Scarey believes some of those who did not vote may change the outcome.
"Some people that didn't vote may decide to vote," Scarey said. "With more information that's out there, and if they know what could happen to our school, they may come out and vote against an independent school."
Scarey also believes some voters were confused by information that had been mailed by supporters and that more information is needed regarding the impact of closing the public school. Among missing information, she said, is the impact closing the public school will have on two school improvement bonds. The district is having a bond specialist look into the bonds and whether one would lose its tax-exempt status or the federal government would stop paying the interest on the other bond if the public school closed. District attorney Joseph O'Dea said last week the indications he has received so far are that closing the school will not impact the bonds.
Those in favor of closing the school, which includes the public board, believe the independent school will be more sustainable than the public school model, which feels annual pressures from the state to consolidate and has little control over enrollment. They believe the ability an independent school has to fundraise and attract tuition students creates the best chance for students to continue being educated in the building for years to come. Opponents have questioned why the public school cannot do the same things.
According to state statute, when a petition requesting a revote is submitted within 30 days of the original vote the school district must hold another vote. Only one revote is permitted within 12 months of the original vote.
Those behind the petition had until Nov. 22 to submit it. Scarey said that because the state Board of Education, which still must approve the Village School's application for independent school status, met Tuesday, it made sense to submit the petition in case it discussed the matter. She also said there is not a desire to delay the process longer than it has to be.
"We thought we'd get the petition in as quickly as possible and not have it dragged out," she said.
Mullineaux said he expects the Prudential Committee will meet sometime next week to discuss setting a date for a revote. The vote must be warned at least 30 days and take place within 60 days from the time the petition is submitted. Given the timeline, the revote will be sometime between mid-December to Jan. 12 -- during which time Bennington College students are off campus.
Scarey denied that the college's calendar played a part in when the petition would be submitted, although prior to last month's vote there were concerns raised by some regarding how college students who generally live in the district just four years could sway the vote. According to the voter checklist, 17 people who listed the college campus as their address voted on Oct. 23.
In March, voters were asked similar questions specific to opening the independent school in the fall of 2012. Those questions passed by more than a two-to-one margin, but the Village School was not approved by the state, so the Prudential Committee kept the public school open for the current school year.
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