The State Board of Education is expected to take action Tuesday/today that will pave the way for an independent school in North Bennington — and the closure of the district’s public elementary school.
Residents of North Bennington first voted at town meeting last March to close their public elementary school — but only if a state approved independent school is there to take its place.
A group that’s backed by the local school board wants to start an independent school in the old public school building. The group applied to the State Board of Education for approval of the proposed North Bennington Village School.
That approval has been slow in coming. But Stephan Morse, the state board chairman, says it’s on the agenda for the board’s meeting.
"My opinion and my encouragement at the board meeting," he says, "is that the board should allow this to happen. Under the current law, the voters in North Bennington have spoken. So hopefully the final chapter will happen and North Bennington will get to create a private school."
Morse says Vermont law requires the board to approve independent schools that meet state requirements.
But he says board members have questioned whether the statute was meant to replace public schools with independent ones.
"So that’s one of the reasons this has been a little difficult is that this is very different," says Morse. "They want to close their public school and create a private school."
Supporters say North Bennington’s plan is really an effort to keep a much-loved community school open and intact.
Eva Chatterjee-Sutton, a former North Bennington School Board member, co-chairs the board of the independent Village School.
"Our challenge," she says, "is that we have a declining enrollment and with that, all our fixed costs of education make the tax rate and the cost per pupil high enough that it becomes a threat to sustainability for our school."
Sutton says the North Bennington Graded School has already had to cut positions to contain per- pupil expenditures — and the cost to taxpayers.
She says the independent school’s nonprofit status will allow it to attract charitable gifts, to preserve its programs and standards without adding to local tax burdens.
Darren Hauck is headmaster of the Mountain School in Winhall — the only Vermont town that has closed its public school. He’s also on the board of North Bennington’s proposed independent school.
Hauck says his district’s 1998 move to independence allowed teachers more creativity and freedom. He says he’s worked with other districts considering similar action.
"I have made presentations in over ten towns," Hauck adds. "There are several towns moving towards another ‘North Bennington’."
But neither the state board of education nor the education secretary believe the Legislature intended public schools to be replaced with private ones. They’d like to see lawmakers revisit the law to address what many see as an unintended consequence.