(Host) Schools across Vermont are feeling the pressure to reduce costs by reorganizing into larger districts. But the North Bennington Graded School is exploring a different option.
A committee is looking into dissolving the century old public school, and creating an independent academy.
VPR’s Susan Keese has the story.
(Keese) At the red brick school in the center of North Bennington, Lori Elwell’s first graders are making cards for father’s day.
(Girl) I’m putting hearts and bubbles…
(Elwell) All right, when you’re ready and finished you can clean up, guys…
(Keese) Elwell has taught here for a long time. She went to this school herself. And now, she’s on the committee looking into disbanding it.
(Elwell) “If that’s how we can keep North Bennington Graded School open, then that’s what we need to do…”
(Keese) Closing the school would be a first step, as the committee sees it. As a community with no public school the village could use its per-student allotments from the state education fund as tuition to send its students to another school. In this case, a locally formed independent school.
The group has a model in nearby Winhall, which closed its public grade school in 1998. Residents then established the Mountain School, where the town now sends its kids and their tuition dollars.
(Martin) The intent here is to try to find a way that we can guarantee long term survival of the school.
(Keese) Tom Martin is the North Bennington principal.
He says villagers have long worried that the school –which only has 135 students – would be forced to close.
In a time of shrinking enrollment and budget crises, small schools have been criticized as inefficient, costly, and lacking in opportunities.
(Martin) “I think this community believes this school does a marvelous job of educating our children. We’re the highest performing school in our area!”
(Keese) Martin saw the passage of Act 153 as a wake up call. The voluntary merger law offers incentives for districts to explore reorganizing into large consolidated bodies, called REDs – Regional Education Districts – to achieve economies of scale.
Like nearly 100 Vermont school districts, North Bennington and its neighbors are meeting to consider that option.
North Bennington School Board Chairman Ray Mullineaux is the school’s representative in the talks. But he’s skeptical.
(Mullineaux) “The RED committee is structured in a way that the political votes on the committee are in proportion to the percentage of the total student population that a district represents… I get less than one vote.”
Supporters of creating an independent academy say they don’t want to become a minority voice on a large regional board that may not understand the school’s importance to the community.
But Vaughn Altemus, a Department of Education consultant on Act 153, says it’s not about saving communities – it’s about educating children.
Altemus also says that no school, however small, can be forced to join a RED.
(Altemus) “You just saw Chittenden East, where a number of towns voted in favor of the RED and Two voted against it. But because they voted against it, there will be no RED. So this isn’t something that could be forced on them from the outside.”
(Keese) The committee exploring a move to independence hopes to have a proposal ready for a vote by Town Meeting Day.