BENNINGTON -- What was supposed to be a relatively short meeting, devoted primarily to a presentation of new student Chromebook computers to the Bennington School Board, saw tensions rise when a group of citizens in opposition to the Shires Housing Project arrived to speak.
The citizens, speaking at Wednesday's school board meeting, expressed in part a desire to respond to interim superintendent Jim Culkeen's letter to the town's Development Review Board, in which he said an increase of 10-12 students, which is what his numbers projected, would be absorbable by the schools of the BSD, according to conversations with the principals. The Shires project recently withdrew their application to the DRB after notices to abutting landowners were sent to the wrong address, although Shires Housing plans to resubmit and restart the process.
After the discussion, as the citizens were leaving, board member Paul Becker asked the board to go into executive session to the end of the meeting. When chairman Ken Swierad informed him that the reason for going into executive session would have to fall under certain criteria, Becker responded, "You can categorize it however you want. Let's call it personnel."
The board decided to go into executive session for personnel at the conclusion of the meeting. Vermont open meeting law enumerates the reasons for a board to go into executive session. Several of those reasons would fall under the subject of personnel, but the board gave no indication which of these subjects were being discussed.
The first citizen to speak on the Shires project, Jeanne McKenna, criticized Culkeen for deviating from a 1.5 child-per-unit "rule of thumb" and for discounting the impact of one-bedroom apartments. Culkeen had found that no one-bedroom units in other Shires Housing projects, in Bennington or across Vermont, had children living in it.
"I don't know where the 1.5 number comes from," responded Culkeen, "everyone's throwing it around as a rule of thumb. When I talked to the Vermont School Board Association, they referred me to the Vermont Housing Finance Association for their guidelines and their calculations for housing units throughout the state. I looked at the Shires numbers across the state and Shires numbers just in Bennington for the one-bedroom units."
"So you did not include the one-bedrooms," responded McKenna, "Just because North Branch Street doesn't have kids does not mean that those one bedrooms won't have kids. I have an apartment, and all that's coming is single parents with two kids. Ninety percent of them, parents with young kids."
"If I was shown that they are putting families with children in one-bedroom units I would change my calculation," said Culkeen, "But it was my understanding that they do not put children in one-bedroom units."
Growing irate, McKenna responded, "To protect you, and to protect the school, I would think that you would want in writing that there aren't going to be kids in those units. Until them, I think you have to include them, at 1.5 or whatever."
"I can't generate numbers I don't have," said Culkeen, "I can only go by the numbers I have in front of me, which show no children in one-bedroom units. I can't speculate, I don't want to speculate."
McKenna continued to press the issue, asking, "But wouldn't you rather plan for kids and know you have a place for them, rather than just have all these kids show up..."
"That's not the question I was asked by the [DRB]," interrupted Culkeen, "I have to limit my comments to what I was asked by the [DRB]. I can't speculate. I can't guess."
Moving on, McKenna began to question the school system itself, referring to Molly Stark and Bennington Elementary's below-state average NECAP exam scores, and referring multiple times to the "poor kids," who are being failed by their school system.
"Somewhere along the way we're failing these kids," she said, "If they're not learning at the elementary school, if by third grade they don't have a good base, it's going to make the rest of their years tough years. If they were thriving, if the results showed that these kids were doing great, to throw another dozen kids in there, I don't think that would be a problem. But these kids aren't doing well. Something is failed in this system, and it's the kids that are suffering. Putting the Shires project through is not going to help anything. I ask that you withdraw the information you submitted to the DRB, reexamine the situation, and submit something that will protect our children."
State Rep. Mary Morrissey, Bennington 2-2, speaking as a private citizen, spoke next, and also expressed concern with Culkeen's deviation from the 1.5 figure, suggesting that by using that math the number of new students would be projected to range anywhere from 15-36. Culkeen pointed out that that calculation was based on all students from K-12, and the DRB had only asked him for grades K-5.
"If we want to use round estimates," said Culkeen, "at 1.5, someone said that would be 21 or 24 [students] or something like that. But that would be K-12. They're asking for K-5, six grades, so that's seven grades that they're not asking for the impact. If you take half that number, you're close to where I was anyway."
McKenna spoke up again at this point, saying, "But aren't you concerned that there's a possibility, and maybe it's slim, but it's still a possibility, that these kids are going to come and need a place to learn, and where they're learning already is not working?"
"You've expressed that concern," said Culkeen, "but I also have to address specifically what I was asked by the [DRB]."
He continued, "I make no promises to revise anything, although what I will promise is that I will certainly review. If you have any documentation that show me my numbers are wrong, I will certainly review it. Nothing is ever etched it stone."
"I'm not criticizing Jim in any way," said board member George Sleeman, who earlier in the meeting had expressed doubt that the law would allow Shires to deny one-bedroom units to families with children. "He gave what he should, but we as a board have the right, and really a responsibility to take a position away from the question that was asked to Jim. Let's face it: We're tight, and we're hurting for space, and if 15 more kids come in tomorrow morning, we're in trouble."
After several other residents had spoken, Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union technology director Frank Barnes gave his thoughts on the discussion, as a private citizen, "Some of what I've heard, and I'll leave it at this, sounds like prejudice," he said. "If you go back and listen to yourselves speak, I think you might say, ‘Yeah, that came across like I didn't want them here.'
"Honestly, I'm not one way or the other, I'm really on the fence about this. I understand the need for affordable housing, I understand that we have apartments that are already unfilled, I understand that some people may take advantage of the system, that it'll bring more kids in, and whatnot. But I think it goes back to something Jim said at the beginning of this conversation... It's not just this group of people, what if a different group of people decide to move here? We're going to be facing this again."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB