Towns Consider Opening Independent Schools

11/22/10 7:34AM By Susan Keese
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(Host) A handful of towns in Vermont have been studying the option of closing their public schools and reopening as independent ones.

Their role model is the southern Vermont town of Winhall, which used the strategy 12 years ago, in part to avoid unpopular government mandates.

VPR's Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) Students at the Mountain School in Winhall get lots of individual attention. There's a five-to-one student teacher ratio and an average class size of ten.

That's a situation Vermont is trying to discourage in public schools, in order to control education spending.

But the Mountain School isn't a public school.  Headmaster Darren Hauck says that's a good thing.

(Hauck) "We're independent and so we can be creative, we do have high expectations and rigor, and some freedom and flexibility, I will say that, about No Child left Behind. So we can do things differently."

Hauck says the school WAS public, until 1998. Though he wasn't around at the time, he says it had low enrollment, poor performance, and high per pupil costs.

(Hauck) "So they looked at the  town academy model, like - what if we closed it and opened up as an independent school that would still guarantee admission to our children but would run differently? And it did save them several thousand dollars per child."

(Keese) So the town voted to close Winhall Elementary and form an independent academy, something Vermont has allowed for 200 years. 

Vermont law allows towns that don't have schools to pay tuition to send their kids to private academies like Lyndon Institute or Thetford, Burr and Burton, and St. Johnsbury Academies.

These independent schools can also fund raise and spend the money as they choose, something public schools can't do under the state's equalization formula.

Lately Hauck says he's been getting invitations from around the state to talk about Winhall's experience going independent.

Merton Leonard chairs the School Board in Burke, one of the towns that invited the Winhall headmaster to speak.

(Leonard) "A lot of this came into being with the new laws that were passed last year in the legislature. They want to consolidate school districts. Well, we don't necessarily agree with all that."

(Keese) Leonard says the idea of privatization seemed well received, but he didn't expect a vote any time soon.

Addison Central School Board chairman Don Jochum thinks privatizing public schools is a bad idea. He doesn't think his town will go that route. But the town's selectboard has looked at the idea, and some people are behind it.

The Addison school is struggling with state penalties for high per-pupil spending.

Jochum says those costs will drop if Addison forms a single, unified district with five other towns. But voters have so far failed to approve that idea either.

For VPR News, I'm Susan Keese.

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