In North Bennington, Plan For Independent School Is On Hold

07/30/12 7:34AM By Susan Keese
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Residents of North Bennington voted by a two-to-one margin last March to close their public elementary school.

The plan was to form a new, independent school that would open this fall in the same building.

But the new school is on hold - for the coming year at least.

Eva Sutton, a former school board member, says the vote to close the North Bennington Graded School was actually a vote to save it.

Sutton now co-chairs the committee working to form an independent school, to be called the Village School of North Bennington.

Sutton links the decision to "go independent" to concerns that state cost-containment policies could trigger unsustainable tax penalties -- or force program cuts at the small, but high-performing public school.

She says maintaining the current level of educational excellence was the prime motive for the change.

"First and foremost was sustaining this kind of excellent school in our community," she says, "and trying to keep as much control over keeping it open and providing the kind of education that has made it so successful. And we feel that being in an independent environment gives us the strategic capability that we can do those things."

Under the proposal, North Bennington's public school district would permit its students to attend any school they wished and the district would pay the tuition.

The goal is that most, if not all, of the students would enroll at the new independent school in the old school building.

The North Bennington group hoped its application for an independent school would be approved by the state Board of Education at its May meeting.

But instead the application was tabled. Supporters say the board delayed action because of philosophical concerns about privatizing schools.

But Mark Oettinger, a lawyer for the state Department of Education, says the application was incomplete. He says it lacked details on important issues, such as how the new school would handle special education.

"Essentially what happened in that May meeting was that the state Board of Education had a partial application," Oettinger says. "They did express philosophical concern with the idea that districts would be closing their public schools and allowing independent schools to pop up in the former school building. But I don't think it's fair to say that the reason that the thing was tabled was because of the philosophical reasons."

Current Vermont law allows approved independent schools to receive state tuition dollars from districts that have school choice.

The law doesn't require independent schools to offer special education. But the new school's  lease agreement for use of the old public school building does require the provision of special ed.

Sutton says her committee has resubmitted its application with new information and an opening date of 2013 instead of this fall. She hopes the state board will rule on it at its August meeting.

Stephan Morse, the state board chair, says he questions the logic behind the North Bennington group's plan.

"I mean it's curious why they chose to do this," says Morse. "But it's certainly within their right. And we certainly realize that under current law, once the voters have voted and the application is complete, that we have no alternative but to pass the action."

Sutton says the change in dates for the new school's opening will require the district to vote again before it can disband the old school.

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