SVSU board accepts waiver; Pownal must join SVSU transportation contract

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POWNAL — The board of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union voted last Wednesday to accept a one-year waiver from the Agency of Education that will allow Pownal to continue operating its own buses until July 1 of next year.

"On Wednesday afternoon, Pownal had a special board meeting, consulting with Steve Stitzel, the school's attorney, who gave them his opinion on whether the school could pursue any additional waivers from the Agency of Education to continue operating their own transportation, or even, to take it further, continue to operate their own transportation even beyond the two-year waiver that they were asking for," said SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen, "What we heard was that the probability of getting a waiver beyond one year is slim to none, and operating any time beyond that would probably not be granted by the Agency of Education."

Stitzel recommended that the board accept the one-year waiver offered by Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe, which would allow Pownal to continue operating as it is until June 2016. However, Holcombe stated in an August letter to the board that the waiver was only being offered, "with the explicit understanding that Pownal will join the otherwise SU-wide contract for transportation, beginning July 1, 2016," meaning that Pownal now has no choice but to join the SVSU transportation contract, which is currently with the Williamstown, Mass.-based Dufour Tours. After the letter was presented to them in September, Pownal officials had requested time to meet with Stitzel to assess their options.

"We fought hard to keep our buses," said Pownal representative Jim O'Connor, "but Mr. Stitzel could find no legal basis for continuing our campaign. He also stipulated that, when (the transportation contract) goes out for bid, we could place a bid, so we're dead, but not dead. There's a little bit of hope at the end of the tunnel there." The current bus contact expires on June 30, 2017, so Pownal, in Culkeen's words, would be forced to "mothball" its buses for a year.

"We really have no choice," lamented Angie Rawling, also a representative from Pownal.

"If this board doesn't take any action, or fails to accept the conditions of the waiver," said Culkeen, "she may evoke provisions under Act 46, which could be a 5 percent (property tax) penalty to every member of the supervisory union."

When North Bennington representative Ray Mullineaux asked the Pownal representatives how they would like him to vote, O'Connor responded, "I'm going to abstain, but I think you have to vote yes. The lawyer is recommending that this board pass that motion. He's saying Pownal has no more legal action to take today, and if you don't take this, the whole supervisory union is going to be hit by (the 5 percent tax increase)."

After Fran Kinney of Shaftsbury made the motion, and Larry Johnson of Mount Anthony Union seconded, the vote was in 7-2-2 in favor, with the two representatives from Pownal abstaining.

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.


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