Don't support privatizing NBGS
I do not support privatizing the North Bennington Graded School. The Prudential Committee's proposal to close the Graded School is not needed to preserve the Graded School, and, in my opinion, likely to hasten the day when the Graded School closes permanently.
The Prudential Committee asserts there is a crisis with enrollment at the Graded School. It asserts that the Graded School has too few students, making its per pupil costs too high. The Prudential Committee says the only way to save the Graded School is to close it, leasing the school building to a private school, the Village School of North Bennington Inc. The Prudential Committee's plan is wrong -- wrong for our children and wrong for our community.
There is no crisis looming. The Commissioner of Education made it clear the State Board of Education has no plan to close the Graded School. The Department of Education's own reports show that the Graded School is not in danger of closing. For example, the State imposes a tax on schools that meet the State's Excess Spending Threshold. The Prudential Committee fears the Graded School will have to close if its per pupil spending meets the Excess Spending Threshold. For FY 2011, the State reported the Graded School's per pupil costs were $11,827, somewhat higher than the State average of $10,321. (Many Vermont schools spend more per pupil than the Graded School.)
The state's Excess Spending Threshold for FY 2011 was $14,549 per pupil. The Graded School would have to increase its per pupil spending by 23 percent to meet the Excess Spending Threshold. The Graded School is not in danger of meeting the Excess Spending Threshold.
The Prudential Committee asserts that voters can only save the Graded School by getting more children to attend the school. Right now, the Prudential Committee could adopt a policy permitting the Graded School to accept students from outside the District. State law does not prohibit public schools from accepting tuition-paying students.
Currently, the law permits the Graded School to charge tuition at the rate of $12,401 per student. The Prudential Committee, however, will not change its policy and accept tuition-paying students. Speaking for the Prudential Committee, Ray Mullineaux stated the Prudential Committee cannot change its tuition policy because doing so would force the Graded School to accept children with special needs -- meaning children needing special education services. Mr. Mullineaux asserted these special education students would bankrupt the Graded School.
What Mr. Mullineaux has not told the public is that state law permits the Graded School to charge tuition-paying students for special education services that are not covered by tuition. In other words, the Graded School can accept tuition students, and charge children extra fees for extra services.
The irony in all of this is that the Prudential Committee just considered a policy to permit two students who left the district to attend the Graded School free of charge. One has to wonder if the Prudential Committee would have considered such a policy if these two students needed special services.
The Prudential Committee asserts that the only way to grow its student population will grow, without opening its doors to expensive special needs children, is to close the Graded School, and replace it with the private, Village School. Mr. Mullineaux publicly stated that the Village School will be able to turn away children needing special education services, something Mr. Mullineaux states the Graded School cannot do. This raises serious concerns about whether the Village School will serve all of the children of our district.
The Prudential Committee and the Village School Trustees argue that the Village School will provide special education services. This is true, but only in part. The 5-year Tuition Agreement signed by the Prudential Committee and the Village School Trustees requires the Village School to provide special education services for all children currently enrolled at the Graded School.
The agreement does not require the Village School to provide special education services for all children who move into the District or children who begin school in the future. The agreement states that the Village School need only provide new students with the special education services the Village School decides to provide. If the Village School Trustees decide to end certain special education services, the Village School can refuse to enroll children needing those services. When the Village School turns away a child, the district will be left with the cost of transporting those children to another school willing to accept those children.
Our Prudential Committee could have required the Village School to serve all of the District's children, now and into the future, but chose not to do so.
Can the Village School grow student enrollment? The Prudential Committee touts the experience of the Mountain School as the example the Village School will follow. (The Headmaster of the Mountain School was one of the first people appointed to the Village School's Board of Trustees.) If you look at the Winhall District's Annual Report, you will find that not all of Winhall's children attend the Mountain School. Many parents send their children to schools in neighboring communities, like Manchester. Parents are able to have their children attend school outside the district because the District pays the child's tuition. It is unrealistic to assume that the Graded School will retain 100 percent of its students, particularly when there is an excellent elementary school in Shaftsbury so close by.
By law, the Prudential Committee could have designated the Village School as the district's receiving school, but the Prudential Committee has not done so. As Matthew Patterson pointed out, school choice is an important part of the Prudential Committee's plan. The Village School may have to replace the students who choose to go outside the District, before it can grow its student population beyond that of the Graded School.
What the Prudential Committee does not tell the voters is that Vermont does not have school choice at the elementary school level. The only children who have school choice in elementary schools, are those living in towns or districts that do not have a school. The closest towns to ours without an elementary school are Winhall and Searsburg. Both of these towns are too far from North Bennington to be considered a source of students. Who then are the students the Village School will attract?
The Village School only has the ability to attract students who can afford to pay full tuition. In the present economy, with good paying jobs being scarce, how many parents can afford to pay $10,000 to $12,000 per year for their child to attend the Village School. For parents who can afford to pay tuition, why would they choose the Village School over other schools, like Pine Cobble or the Maple Street School, which have strong reputations for academic excellence?
By closing the Graded School, more parents will be able to afford sending their children to schools outside the district. For example, Pine Cobble and Maple Street Schools charge between $14,000 and $18,000 per year tuition. Most people cannot afford to pay tuition at this level. Under the Prudential Committee's plan, more families will be able to afford private school tuition because the district will pay around $12,000 of a child's tuition costs, making the family's share for these schools between $2,000 and $6,000. The family that cannot afford tuition of $14,000 may be able to afford $2,000. The Prudential Committee's plan makes it financially affordable for children to get their education outside the District. Is it wise to us to have our brightest students leave the District, rather than stay, and be part of diverse and dynamic student body?
The Village School will not be less expensive than the Graded School, especially if its enrollment is less than that of the Graded School. The Woodbury Study published by the Vermont School Boards Association reported that the Mountain School's costs per pupil were 20 percent higher than its public school counterparts. If, as the Prudential Committee asserts, the Mountain School is a model, then we can expect the District's education costs to go up.
The Prudential Committee has not told the public that the Mountain School is experiencing serious financial problems. The headmaster for the Mountain School reported in FY 2011 that the Mountain School faced a deficit of approximately $500,000. The school's financial problems caused serious financial problems for the Winhall School District. Winhall incurred its own large deficits -- $325,000 deficit in FY 2010, and added a $250,000 deficit in FY 2011. This year the Vermont Legislature had to bail out the Winhall District, lending it $ 600,000 from the Education Fund to solve its financial crisis.
If the Village School ultimately proves to be more costly to operate, the voters will have the option of designating another school, such as the Shaftsbury Elementary School, as our designated school. By State law, the voters can designate one school to receive all of the District's children. Currently, the cost of tuition at the Shaftsbury School is about $2,000 less per pupil than the Graded School. If the Graded School is closed, taxpayers could reduce its education costs by about $244,000 per year if the voters designated Shaftsbury as the District's receiving school. If the Village School proves to be more expensive than the current Graded School, it reasonable to assume the voters will look for ways to reduce education costs and their tax bills.
Shaftsbury Elementary School is an excellent school, like the Graded School, and provides the taxpayers with a cheaper alternative to the Village School.
If the Graded School closes, the Prudential Committee will no longer set education policy for the District. School policy will now be set by unelected trustees. The Committee's only role will be to raises taxes. The Prudential Committee will have little if any role in shaping educational policy for the Supervisory Union, as it now has. If the members of the Prudential Committee are not actively engaged in operating a school, they will have no voice when it comes to setting policy for the Supervisory Union.
Members of the Prudential Committee are our representatives to the Supervisory Union, but who will listen if our representatives are not actively engaged in managing a school.
I believe the Graded School has been a success for my children, and my community, because the Prudential Committee has been accountable to the voters, not just to parents. A true community school is one that answers to the entire community, not just to parents. Public schools perform a vital function in providing all of our children the opportunity for a good education meeting each student's needs.
The community, through the voters, hold its policymakers, the Prudential Committee, accountable for their policies and decisions at each election and at each vote on the school budget. In my opinion, the voters will decide next week whether the voters will continue to have a voice in the operation of their elementary school or end it. I hope we choose to keep the Graded School.
Please review the facts and vote ‘yes!'
As we all know, North Bennington residents will go to the polls for the second time this year to decide whether or not they should close the current public school and open an Independent Village School. After passing by a wide margin in March, the initiative has been hit with numerous delays and stall tactics by state and local entities that have vested interests and/or ideological biases against the formation of the Independent School.
One of the more commonly raised misconceptions about this proposed change is that it is being rushed. The timeline of events leading up to the vote says otherwise. In 2008 the NBGS Prudential Committee had the forethought to examine various governance structures in the face of declining enrollment and state pressures of consolidation. NBGS held various public forums on the issue and it was clear that if we were to continue with the status quo, NBGS would face serious challenges to its viability over the next decade.
Over the next few years the Prudential Committee spoke with residents and sent survey's home requesting public input. In February 2011 a separate ISIS Committee was formed to research the practicability of closing NBGS and forming an independent school with a public mission in its place. Finally, as mentioned above, after much feedback and positive support, voters approved the proposed change by more than a 2 to 1 margin.
Another tactic employed by opponents of the Independent School has been an attempt to shut down discussion by claiming that supporters have created a "Climate of Fear" with claims that NBGS was facing imminent closure. The most charitable description of this tactic is that it is an attempt to mislead and distract voters from the real issue. The motivation behind the formation of the Independent School is clear: Due to declining enrollments, many small schools are being pushed to consolidate as costs to keep them open become too high for residents to support. Without changes, this is the fate of NBGS.
While closure may not be imminent, that does not make it any less likely in coming years. Facing the issue creatively and soberly is not creating a "Climate of Fear" -- it is facing reality.
Finally, some opponents have repeatedly distorted facts pertaining to independent schools. The motives of these individuals seem more driven by power politics -- the desire to maintain control by the SVSU over our school -- than of what is best for our children.
Eleven percent of all Vermont children are educated in independent schools, including respected institutions as Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, Thetford Academy and The Mountain School in Winhall. There are actually more than 100 independent schools in Vermont that are flourishing. Towns with independent schools enjoy higher property values and the opportunity to choose what education is best for their child.
Please let's not put our heads in the sand and delay this decision until the Legislature tries to change the law or the SVSU consolidates us into one big warehouse. North Bennington is an amazing place with an incredible school.
Please vote "yes" Tuesday to protect and enhance this treasure.
An alternate viewpoint on the North Bennington School
With all that has been said and written about the possibility of the North Bennington Graded School being closed and reopened as a private academy, I write this letter from the viewpoint of a North Bennington resident and taxpayer who feels it is in the best interest of North Bennington to continue to operate a high-performing elementary school, regardless of whether or not the school remains a public school or is transformed in to a private academy.
It is from that viewpoint that I will vote "no" to both ballot articles on Oct. 23, and therefore vote to keep the public school open.
There can be no debate that the individuals who have constituted the ISIS Committee, the North Bennington Prudential Board, and the individuals who now comprise the Village School of North Bennington Board of Trustees have put considerable time and effort into their efforts to create an independent private school in North Bennington. What can easily be debated is their justification to close the North Bennington Graded School.
The process to create the independent academy began nearly two years ago. While it is certainly true that many public meetings have been held since then, it is also true that many (most?) were attended by very few members of the public (I note one set of meeting minutes posted on the NBGS website stated the previous meeting had been "well attended" -- with 12 members of the public present).
Many in North Bennington, including myself, received little notice of the committee meetings, or received notice for meetings that had already occurred days before. Early in the process of the consideration by the ISIS committee to create a private academy, I will admit to indifference as to whether the North Bennington Graded School continued to operate as a public school or was "re-created" as a private school. My wife and I had long ago made the decision that Sacred Heart School in Bennington was the best choice for our daughter for her K-8 education, and my assumption was that I would continue to vote in North Bennington on a school board and budget for the school regardless of how it continued to operate in the future (as a public school or private academy).
As I learned more about the deliberations being made by the committee, it became evident to me that the view of the committee was clear -- shut down the North Bennington Graded School as it now exists, at any cost, and open a private academy under their exclusive management. What also became clear to me was the general public in North Bennington was to lose most (nearly all) of the local control of their school if this were to happen.
Earlier this year, in March, North Bennington voters were asked to consider closing the public school and reopening it as a private school. Having not attended the "community meetings" held by the committees involved (and noting here for the public that, at least in my opinion, they were not as well advertised as the proponents of the private school have stated in recent letters to the editor, guest columns, and meetings) I took it upon myself, in the days ahead of the March election to have a telephone conversation with an individual who served on the ISIS committee and has since be selected (but not by voters) to be a trustee of the proposed private school.
The primary purpose of this conversation was: (a) to get a better understanding on the proposed budget of the private school, and (b) learn how trustees for the school would be selected.
What I was told in that conversation was the following:
1. The budget is not public information and would not be disclosed. I was also told in that conversation the tax savings would be substantial to the taxpayers but the budget was not being disclosed publicly for two reasons: taxpayers would not understand the savings, and taxpayers would expect the same savings every year.
2. Voters would cease to vote on the managing board of the school -- the new board of Trustees (self-elected themselves) would self-select future Trustees. The public election of board members would cease immediately upon the creation of the private academy.
3. Although the private academy will be funded with largely public funds, there will be no open meeting requirement for the private academy going forward, thus eliminating the public's ability to attend and participate in school board meetings.
Although not stated directly, there was also the indication that committee members felt the North Bennington Graded School would ultimately be closed involuntarily and the creation of private school was necessary to avoid closure of the current school.
I was disappointed by these responses. I felt they were both elitist (disenfranchising voters in North Bennington from public election of the "school board" and claiming that voters would not understand the budget) and misleading (the only group that has the power to close the current school are the registered voters in North Bennington -- not the Southwestern Vermont Supervisory Union, not the Vermont State Board of Education, and not any other outside agency).
Since that time I have followed this matter more closely, examined the documents on the North Bennington Graded School website, and attended the last "public information session" on this matter (last week).
Here is what I have observed over the last several months:
1. The budget for the private school has no demonstrable savings to the taxpayer compared to the public school.
2. At the last "information session" it was estimated (by the Prudential Board and the Trustees) in the first year of operation the private school would, in fact, only lower the tax rate to North Bennington taxpayers "one penny" (translation: For a taxpayer who owns a $150,000 home in North Bennington, the tax on that property would decrease a whopping $15 next year).
3. There will no longer be public oversight as to the operation of the school. Voters will not select trustees and voters will not be able to vote on budgets. Voters will be able to vote on a "per pupil tuition rate" only- but will not have access to information regarding the overall budget, how it is spent, or what other outside funds have been made available (if any) to the private school.
4. At the last public information session (Oct. 10) the public was told, by Darren Houck, Head of School at The Mountain School in Winhall and co-chairman of the Board of Trustees for the proposed private academy, all of the above actually meant more public control for the voters (how? ... we no longer will have a vote on the management or budget of the school and there is no open meeting requirement for a private school -- meaning voters and taxpayers are precluded from attending Trustee's meetings). Houck also informed the public that it was his opinion it will be better for the Trustees not to be elected by the public because now they would only need to answer to the "mission of the school" (and not the public). I will admit the last sentence sounds ridiculous, but this is, in fact, what was said at the last meeting.
5. No trustee has been able to determine how many, and at what price, outside students will attend the private academy. Although estimates have been made on nearly every other issue, no forecast has been made on this subject even though the allowance of "tuitioning in" students is one of the justifications for a private school by the group seeking to close the public school (the voters, if elect to close the public school, will have foreclosed their ability to weigh on the matter of how those children's educations will be financed).
6. Although I will admit to not having an understanding of special education requirements as they are mandated by the state of Vermont, my observation of the last public meeting was that those in attendance on Oct. 11 who do have an understanding of this very complicated topic raised several concerns about the latest application of the private academy to the Vermont Board of Education as it relates to Special Education and the ability of a private academy to deliver such services.
7. Even though several senior members of the SVSU staff (the superintendent, chief financial officer, and chairperson) were present at the Oct. 11 "public information system" they were not allowed a chance to speak. In fact, when the chief financial officer (Rick Pembroke) did speak to address an issue that targeted him personally, he was told, literally, to "shut up" by the moderator of that meeting, Ray Mullineaux (chairman of the North Bennington Prudential Committee). Indeed, it is difficult to have a "public information meeting" when several people with knowledge on subject are refused the opportunity to speak in what is supposed to have been an open meeting.
8. Even though the NBGS Prudential Board, ISIS Committee members, and Trustees of the private academy all deny ever having stated closure of this school was imminent unless it was reopened as a private school, fliers have now been seen in North Bennington claiming the school will close unless there is a vote to re-open it as a private academy. Earlier this week, Eva Sutton, co-chairwoman of the proposed academy's Board of Trustees, would not answer a question from a local journalist (Patrick McArdle - Rutland Herald) about whether the mailing came from or was approved by the trustees.
Perhaps in the future the time will come when a private academy is the right thing to do in North Bennington. Even Ms. Sutton, at the Oct. 11 meeting, called the decision to open a private academy at this time a "calculated risk."
By any measure and by all accounts, the current school is a very high-performing, well recognized public elementary school the North Bennington community is, and should be, proud of. Too many issues regarding a private academy remain to risk shutting down a school of this caliber at this time.
If you are a North Bennington School District voter, protect your public school, and your ability to participate with your future votes, by voting "no" on both ballot measures on Oct. 23 at the North Bennington Train Station.
Vote "Yes" to keep quality education in North Bennington
I'll try to keep this brief (feel free to read Brian McKenna's excellent letter in Thursday's paper for further information), but I feel the need to respond to the many shortsighted letters recently about the transition of NBGS into the Village School of North Bennington.
Now, my buddy Mike Bethel has thrown his opinion in the mix. Let's remind everyone that the people of North Bennington have already had their say once -- and they voted overwhelming in favor of the change.
There's that scary word: "Change." I believe this is where the "fear" word people are throwing around comes in. Yes, change can be scary but proactive change is much less frightening than reactive change. As a citizen of North Bennington who has been fortunate enough to have both of my children educated there, I wouldn't want our community to look back in the future (I won't bother debating how far this will be) and wish we had done something to save our elementary education here while we had the chance.
There has been a committee looking into the sustainability of quality education in North Bennington for years -- the decision to go this route has definitely not been rushed or taken lightly. There are some risks, but as a "gambling" woman, I'd definitely place my bet on researched, proactive change rather than assuming education trends/reform are somehow going to bypass our little town just because of how great a school we have.
Concerned about North Bennington Grade School
I am very concerned about the proposals in their present form for the future development of the NBGS. On Sept. 4 I submitted a letter, at a public meeting, to the Prudential Committee about the future governance of NBGS.
The essential part concerned the proposed trustees of the school and their accountability. At present it would appear that this unelected body will not be accountable to anyone except themselves. In my letter I suggested the following model for a board of trustees that would allow the significant stakeholders in the school to be represented. The proposed board is as follows:
1. Composition of the board of trustees to be published and in the public domain.
2. Meetings of the board will be open to the public allowing for input from the public.
3. There must not be any cross membership with the Village Prudential Committee; they must remain completely independent of each other to avoid possible conflicts of interest.
4. Monthly meetings must be held in the evenings enabling the majority of people to attend (accessibility).
The trustees will publish a budget for the year and audited accounts, with reconciled bank statements available at monthly meetings.
5. The board membership should comprise nine members, enabling the chairperson, when necessary, to have a casting vote.
6. 1 would recommend the following composition for the board of nine members:
* Three (3) trustees elected from the local community with a three year term of office. Initially one would have a 1 year term, another a two-year term and the 3rd a three year term. i.e. one would be elected each year.
* Two trustees elected by the parents for three year terms or as long as their children are students at the school.
* Two trustees elected by all the staff of the school annually.
* Two co-opted members who have expertise that would be of use to the school.
* The principal to be an ex-officio nonvoting member of the board.
It is also useful to have on the board: An accountant; a lawyer; an architect and; a member of the local business community.
The current proposal only allows for the one group to take control of the school because, as far as can be ascertained, no other groups have been invited to tender for the franchise to run the school. This raises serious concerns about corporate governance as the current proposal allows for unlimited duration of that franchise and is not one which allows for proper managerial oversight. A tender for five years with a review by the Prudential Committee after three years would appear appropriate.
If the Prudential committee are satisfied with the conduct of the school and the quality of education given then they could extend the franchise. If they are dissatisfied then they could warn the franchisee and put the franchise out to competitive tender for the future conduct of the school. This would require and allow the Prudential Committee to call for competitive tenders for the future operation and conduct of the school. To avoid conflict of interest as stated above there must be no overlap between the membership of the Prudential Committee and the Board of Trustees.
Ray Mullineaux (chairman of the North Bennington Prudential Committee) in his reply to my letter regarding the governance of the school (dated Sept. 6) stated: "We believe passionately in the democratic process, and are confident that an informed electorate will choose the right path for our community, our school, and our children."
We all believe in the democratic process so why is it being denied the residents of North Bennington with regard to their school?
I am not opposed to independent schooling our own children went to independent schools here in the U.S., Australia, and the UK, and I firmly believe in parental choice and accountability of schools to their significant stakeholders. The current proposal for NBGS does not allow for this. Therefore an "informed electorate" should reject the current proposal and the Prudential Committee can then come back to us with a truly democratic model of school governance that is responsive to the significant stake holders in the school.