Independent village school among top education stories of 2012

Tuesday January 29, 2013


Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- It was a busy year for the six school districts of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union as one-third of the schools greeted new principals, years of consolidation discussions wrapped up without resulting in changes, and one district is now on the brink of closing its public school to give way to an independent one.

By town, here are the education highlights from 2012.


* Donna Cauley, previously assistant principal at Bennington Elementary, replaced former Monument Elementary Principal Brian Crego on an interim basis in February and was hired permanently over the summer.

* Replacing Cauley at Bennington Elementary this year is Jerry O'Connor, who taught at Mount Anthony Union Middle School the past five years.

* Bennington School District began public pre-kindergarten in the fall, making all 4-year-olds eligible to attend preschool at private preschool partners for 10 publicly funded hours a week.

* The school board discussed multiple solutions to a classroom shortage expected to hit as early as next school year and last until 2020. The board discussed leasing off-campus space, tuitioning students to other schools, re-organizing the grades served at each school and building a 10,000-square-foot addition to Bennington Elementary. The addition appears to be the leading choice of the board, although a decision has yet to be made.

* After failing to meet Adequate Yearly Progress for the second consecutive year, Monument Elementary joined the ranks of other Bennington schools to be identified by the state as needing "school improvement." The designation put an end to allowing families in the other BSD school attendance zones choice to send their children to Monument under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

* Timothy Payne replaced longtime Principal Warren Roaf at MAUMS over the summer. A longtime Bennington resident, Payne, was principal of Mount Greylock Regional School in Williamstown, Mass., the previous seven years.

* MAU High School began an exciting new technology pilot across subjects in which different teachers are piloting laptops, Chromebooks, iPads and a "bring your own technology" class.

* MAUHS eventually decided to maintain the minimum grade point average of 70 after administration's recommendation to lower it drew harsh criticism from the public in the spring.

* Students Griffin Thomas and Alexina Federhen were picked as representatives on the state's new Harassment, Hazing and Bullying Prevention Advisory Council to offer a student perspective to the group made up largely of adults from education and anti-bullying groups.


* Residents voted in March and November (and again in January 2013) to replace North Bennington Graded School with the independent Village School of North Bennington. The decision divided the community between those who feel the decision is the best chance of sustainability to those who fear a loss of local control, as just 52 percent of voters were in favor of the change in the two most recent votes. The process took about two years of research, public outreach and planning, which was drawn out even more by multiple delays. The initial plan to make the transition over the summer was called off because the State Board of Education did not approve the Village School's independent school application because it did not have a settled special education agreement. It now appears the transition will take place this summer after getting state approval in January.

* The Prudential Committee created a new policy to accommodate two families allowing children to return to NBGS for sixth grade free of cost if they moved out of the district in fifth grade. The decision was praised by some while criticized by others.

* Another contentious decision by the board was to use $26,000 of money entrusted to the school district by the late Ethel "Babs" Scott to pay for attorney fees of the independent Village School.

* The Legislature amended the school district's charter to expand the Prudential Committee from three to five members -- a change that happened in practice after voters agreed to the change in 1999. The district's attorney said it was not necessary for the legislature to approve the charter change, but lawmakers did so as a precaution after the issue was pointed out.


* Todd Phillips replaced Joy Kitchell as principal at Pownal Elementary over the summer, coming from an assistant principal position in North Carolina.

* The school district reached an agreement to sell the former Oak Hill School, part of which dates back to 1800, for $65,000 in July. Empty underground oil tanks discovered shortly thereafter have delayed the sale as state officials required numerous tests to be performed on the soil.


* Principal James Harwood announced in December his plans to retire at the end of the school year after five years in the position and 34 in SVSU.

* The school district received a generator formerly at MAUMS after it was offered to both BSD and Shaftsbury. When the BSD school board announced it wanted the generator after Shaftsbury came to the same conclusion it began a controversy that was decided when the MAU school board finally voted 5-4 to award it to Shaftsbury.


* Woodford School District received good news over the summer when it received nearly $200,000 of impact aid from the federal government for its national forest land -- more than twice what it anticipated. Some of the funds will be put into a reserve fund while some of it will be used to offset taxes this year.


* Sparked by incentives in Act 153 all SVSU school districts as well as Arlington and Sandgate participated in a study committee exploring consolidation to form a regional educational district (RED). After meeting monthly for a year and spending $13,500 on consultants the committee disbanded in June as members expressed no interest in consolidating.

* After the assistant superintendent post remained vacant two years, Donna Leep was tapped to fill the position over the summer. Leep is a longtime Massachusetts educator and administrator.

* Former MAUHS English teacher Frank Barnes was hired on a permanent basis as the technology director after being appointed on an interim basis the previous fall.

* School cafeterias across the country featured healthier choices due to a new federal law that went into effect this school year. Students and parents alike criticized the revisions the first few weeks of school, although administration has said that anger has subsided.

* Part of the new lunch requirements are for every student to take a piece of fruit with their lunch. Because many students were throwing the fruit away, schools began a "give-back" bucket to make unwanted fruit available to students who wanted an additional piece. The Vermont Department of Health, citing a law that food served in a school cafeteria may not be redistributed, abruptly put an end to the practice after the innovative idea was publicized in the Banner.

* In December, a half dozen parents of autistic children made passionate pleas to overhaul autism programs, particularly at the elementary level. Complaints about staffing shortages and professionals not having the training to meet the increasing student needs were among the most serious issues raised. SVSU, which was already looking at revamping autism programming, has made significant additions to next school year's budget to help meet the needs. An autism committee of parents and staff was supposed to be formed in December to help address the immediate and long-term needs, but the group has yet to meet.


* Southwest Vermont Career Development Center -- which is not a part of SVSU but shares a building with MAUHS -- hired Marie-Pierre Huguet as the new adult education director to replace Robert Mazur who retired over the summer.

* Michael Lawler, who had taught law enforcement at the school for more than a decade, was hired as the new assistant director, replacing Robert Montgomery who also retired over the summer.

* The school board was unanimous in its December decision to reject a recommendation to dissolve and become part of MAUHS or SVSU, which was suggested in an efficiency audit completed in January by Dr. Robert Schiller. Of approximately 50 recommendations in the report the school board has addressed nearly half. More than a half dozen recommendations were to cut positions, but so far the board has only decided to eliminate the outreach coordinator. The district is still in the process of addressing recommendations in the report.


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