NORTH BENNINGTON -- The North Bennington Prudential Committee discussed Friday a process to ensure closing the public elementary school and tuitioning students is cost neutral.
In order to make spending in the fiscal year 2014 "non-operating" school budget equal to that of the "operating" budget the board will need to find in the ballpark of $100,000 to cut, which the board said it will find or it will not consider closing North Bennington Graded School and leasing the building to the independent Village School of North Bennington.
The district has already warned a $2.3 million budget that will go before voters March 5. The spending is enough to continue operating a public school; however, a projected non-operating budget is higher due to additional expenses such as one-time retirement or severance payments for teachers and the need to escrow money.
The Prudential Committee plans to begin the cost-cutting process by looking at its $95,000 assessment from Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union. The supervisory union assesses member districts for most expenses proportional to the number of students in each district.
The Prudential Committee’s argument is without operating a school the public district will not require as many services -- from administrative oversight to curriculum costs.
"We believe, like anybody, that you should only pay for services you actually receive and certainly (not pay for) services as a non-operating district we would not even access," Chairman Raymond Mullineaux said. "Conversely we are committed to paying fairly for services that we actually receive and use from the SU."
Mullineaux said Woodford School District, whose teachers do not belong to the union, does not have to pay a share of negotiation expenses because they are not impacted by it. Likewise, he said, North Bennington should not pay for some services it will not benefit from.
A letter detailing North Bennington’s stance approved by the board Friday identifies technology, human resources, curriculum and assessment, administration, and finance as areas non-operating districts do not require the same amount of service.
Those points have largely been disputed by the SVSU. A draft assessment with North Bennington not operating a school shows North Bennington School District would not be assessed anything for technology, English language learner costs, or the PLUS program, however their share of the assessment for administration, finance, special education administration and early childhood costs would be unchanged.
In response to a request from the Prudential Committee’s attorney Joseph O’Dea to set up assessment negotiations, SVSU Chief Financial Officer Richard Pembroke responded in December that he does not see a reason other assessments would be affected. "Administrative, Special Education Administration, Early Childhood Program, and Financial Services would remain because we still retain significant responsibility over the students of (North Bennington) regardless if they operate a school or not," Pembroke wrote.
There appears to also be some question whether supervisory unions should assess based on students in a school district, or attending the district’s public school. Mullineaux said assessments are done by average daily membership (ADM) in each district, which would mean non-operating districts would not be assessed.
"This district won’t have an ADM count if it goes to a non-operating situation, but we will be using services so it makes sense to negotiate the costs for those services," Mullineaux said.
Any assessment changes would have to be authorized by the SVSU board -- an 18-person board with three representatives from each member district. SVSU set its fiscal year 2014 budget in January and if the assessments were lowered for North Bennington the other five districts would have to pick up more of the costs.
The Prudential Committee plans to meet with the SVSU Finance Committee in the next week, and then the full SVSU board to negotiate their assessment.
Principal Thomas Martin said the SVSU assessment makes up about one-third of the expenses in the non-operating budget that the school board could affect to make it flat with the operating budget. The majority of the non-operating budget is fixed costs, such as debt-service and tuition.
Because the non-operating budget is not finalized it will not be included in the annual report next to the operating budget. However, the board said when it is complete, it will be distributed and explained to the public.
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