The North Bennington Graded School is small and enrollment in elementary school is stagnant. That's creating a problem for local taxpayers and school officials.
"Retaining the school in its current structure and format, curriculum and program becomes an increasing challenge for the Prudential Committee and the tax rate for the local community to bear in order to support what has been an important component of the community," said Eva Sutton of the Independent School Committee.
And North Bennington's situation is common to other communities in Vermont. To cut costs, the state board of education endorses consolidation of small schools into neighboring districts.
"I guess I wonder if students are going to get all the same opportunities in a smaller school. But again, it's a voluntary process and there's nothing that the state board can do to force a school to consolidate," said Stephan Morse of the Vt. Education Department.
But Sutton and others in the North Bennington community worry the state will push consolidation by changing the law and forcing kids to attend schools in neighboring districts. So she chaired a committee to close the small public school as public and reopen it as an independent one, which would bring in revenue from students in other school choice districts. State law says the board of education has to approve all complete applications for independent schools.
"Under current law, it says we must approve it. And I think that probably means regardless of what we're thinking," Morse said.
But in May when the application was up for a vote, the board never even discussed the application or asked any questions. Instead, they decided to table it indefinitely, which had Sutton wondering, what is the board thinking?
"It became clear that the board of education was taking up the question about whether both independent schools should exist and the concern that a public school was becoming a private school," Sutton said.
Something the committee's attorney calls a "serious legal error... that must be immediately corrected" as the board's opinion on independent schools is irrelevant to their legal obligation to approve it, but Morse disagrees.
"They've created this special private school but have not provided for special education," Morse said.
He says until he sees a plan for special education, the application will be tabled indefinitely. But Sutton says her application was solely for general education, and she believes this stance on the special education plan is simply a tactic to stall the process.
The committee plans to resubmit a new application before the board's August meeting.
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