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North Bennington School Goes Independent

VPR/Susan Keese

A 140-year history has ended for the North Bennington Graded School.

Residents of North Bennington voted three times to close their public school and establish a new, independent academy in the old school building. Now that school is taking shape.

Educators in North Bennington say the students shouldn’t notice any difference at all when the independent North Bennington Village School opens in the fall.

Thomas Martin, the former principal at the old school, will be back as the Village School’s headmaster.

Martin says a few teachers have chosen to retire, but most have been rehired, along with the old school’s part-time guidance, library, custodial and support staff.

“All of them had to resign, or were laid off --including myself,” Martin says. “Because the school closed. It’s a leap of faith, but it shows the commitment they have to what we’re doing, which is pretty exciting to see.”

The new school’s budget makes good on an earlier promise that the move to independence would not affect staff salaries and benefits.

Martin says creative energy ran high at a recent teachers meeting. Instead of going over a pre-established calendar of meetings, teacher trainings, and tests, they discussed their own priorities for the coming year.

“And you could tell how excited they were by the fact that this was their school now,” Martin says.

“So that a decision about what should be taught to a kindergartner or a first grader is not being  made somewhere else by someone else. It’ll be made by that first grade teacher.”

North Bennington began studying independence because of fears that its much-loved school would be deemed too small to be cost effective.

Martin says it’s obvious that the state has a policy of consolidation.

“Clearly there’s an intent to reduce the number of school districts and supervisory unions,” he says.

Vermont law allows towns that don’t have schools to pay tuition, raised by taxes, for students to attend approved ‘independent academies.’

This year some lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to change the law to prevent other public schools from following North Bennington’s precedent.

But not everyone in North Bennington is enthusiastic about the change.

Jason Morrissey, a local attorney, worries about a loss of transparency.

“It’s now a private school, Morrissey says. “There’s no open meeting law. It is, from a taxpayer’s perspective, taxation without representation. Our educational tax dollars now go to fund a school where we don’t have the right to attend open meetings, we don’t get to vote on the board of trustees and we don’t get to see the budget. All we get to do is vote on a per-pupil tuition rate, which is not the same as looking at a budget and holding those who we elect responsible to the taxpayers.”

Officials at neighboring public schools say they’re getting inquiries from North Bennington parents who are concerned and may want to transfer.

But Martin, the new headmaster, says he’s hearing from parents interested in transferring in to the independent school.

He says he expects enrollment will be about the same -- about 116 students-- when the Village School opens.

Susan Keese was VPR's southern Vermont reporter, based at the VPR studio in Manchester at Burr & Burton Academy. After many years as a print journalist and magazine writer, Susan started producing stories for VPR in 2002. From 2007-2009, she worked as a producer, helping to launch the noontime show Vermont Edition. Susan has won numerous journalism awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for her reporting on VPR. She wrote a column for the Sunday Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. Her work has appeared in Vermont Life, the Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times and other publications, as well as on NPR.
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