Rick Pembroke presents the details of Bennington Elementary’s security-related construction project to members of the Bennington School District
Rick Pembroke presents the details of Bennington Elementary's security-related construction project to members of the Bennington School District board on Wednesday, July 23. (Derek Carson)

BENNINGTON -- In a letter requested by Bennington's Developmental Review Board, Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union superintendent James Culkeen has said that Bennington School District will be able to handle an influx of students from the proposed Shires Housing project, so long as they do not exceed projections by too large an amount and are spread across all grade levels.

Culkeen's statement was presented at the Bennington School Board meeting on Wednesday night and was based on data analysis that suggested that BSD would see no more than 12 K-5 students from the development, as well as conversations with school principals. "That's an estimate," Culkeen said, "it could be higher, it could be lower." SVSU chief financial officer Rick Pembroke had previously suggested that the town (including the middle and high schools) could see an increase of 36 students, which was based on the commonly used formula of 1.5 students per unit. Culkeen said that his estimate was lower in part because eight of the proposed units are 1-bedroom units that Shires Housing does not make available for families to rent. His analysis was based on demographic data from other Shires Housing projects and information from the Vermont Housing Finance Association.

"I met with all three principals, and all said 10-12 students across five grades would not have a negative effect," said Culkeen.

Board member George Sleeman expressed concern that the board had been hearing reports that the schools were already at capacity.


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"They're telling us that classes are meeting in hallways, they're meeting in closets," he said. He brought up the recent proposal to convert the stage at Molly Stark School into classroom space.

Culkeen's findings create a strong contrast with the words of BSD board chair Ken Swierad, who addressed the issue at a meeting of the Bennington Select Board earlier this month, saying, "Monument School is packed with 24-25 in a class up there, BennEl is packed, we have no more room. I don't know if you know this, but we're renting the old childcare center on Division Street from the hospital, they've given that to us for $1 plus the expenses of refurbishing that whole thing for us so we can move classes out of Molly Stark and take some out of BennEl so we can ease our conditions. It's really packed there's no room. I used to be on a zoning board, and I'm on the planning commission, and we always used 1.5 kids [per unit]. So we could be looking at 25 more kids, and they won't all come in one class. We'd have to hire one teacher more, maybe two teachers more, maybe another SPED individual. This all costs money."

However, if Culkeen's estimate is closer to the amount of students that can be expected, and the students are relatively evenly distributed, class sizes would go up, but there would be no need to create new classes, for which space would need to be found and teachers would need to be hired. Culkeen did point out that this should not take away from the conversation that the schools are at or near class capacity. "Our goal is that this begins a dialogue," he said, saying that whether or not this project is approved, "they're going to ask us this again."

Board member Jackie Kelly suggested that in districts where she has worked in the past, one relatively low-cost way to combat rising class sizes is to hire part-time teacher's aides to make sure that students still get some degree of individualized attention, rather than splitting up classes and hiring new teachers. She suggested that this could be an option if the Shires project is approved, and the number of students proves to be higher than projected.

An increase in students that did not require the hiring of additional staff would, at least in theory, generate tax relief, as the number of equalized pupils in the district would go up. The tax rate set by the state is determined in part by total costs divided by the number of equalized pupils in a district. "Though we could absorb these students without any measurable impact," said Culkeen in an interview on Thursday, "all parties involved need to have a study and a conversation involving the future of the facilities in the BSD. This isn't going to be the last housing project."

The board also approved the bid from Krause-Livingston Construction of $50,756 for security-related construction at Bennington Elementary. The construction will involve the installation of security cameras on the exterior of the building and changes to the building's main entrance to make it more secure. This construction was required by the state, and has been completed at Monument and is currently being done at Molly Stark. "In our experience at Monument, it's been fantastic," said Pembroke, "They can't say enough about it." The district had budgeted $65,000 for the project, although Pembroke said $8,000 of that will go toward new furniture for the secretary's office. Pembroke said KLC had done the work at Molly Stark as well, and that it had been going very smoothly, with very few problems.

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB