Questions raised about $25,000 “gift” from school board
By Patrick McArdle
STAFF WRITER | November 13,2012
NORTH BENNINGTON — The School Board on Nov. 8 tabled a vote on making a gift of $25,000 to the independent Village School of North Bennington from a fund left to the public North Bennington Graded School, but residents still asked a number of pointed question about whether the action was appropriate.
In two separate votes this year, voters approved closing the public school and allowing the board, called the North Bennington Prudential Committee, to lease the building and facilities to a board of trustees who would run an independent school from the same site.
On Nov. 8, the School Board agenda included a “gift” to the independent school which would have come from about $135,000 left to the school by Elizabeth “Babs” McCullough Scott after she died in 2000.
The instructions from Scott’s will called for the money “to be expended for the enhancement of the district at the discretion of the School Board after consultation with the principal” but not to be used for tax relief.
Before discussing the gift, Raymond Mullineaux, chairman of the School Board, said the board would not take any action on the agenda item until December. However, he opened the meeting to questions from residents.
No indication was given to the public on how the money would be spent until a direct question was asked of the School Board. Eva Sutton, a member of the board of trustees of the independent school, said the money would be spent “in part” on legal fees and for “activities related to the start-up of the school should the application (to create an independent school) be approved (by the Vermont Board of Education).”
Sutton said it was “impossible” to raise outside funding for the independent school until it’s approved by the state.
“I think the minute that we become identified as an independent school, we’ll be out raising money quickly to support the opening,” she said.
When asked if the trustees would reimburse the district, Sutton said it was “something we could discuss with the board.”
The board’s attorney, Joseph O’Dea, said he had given the board his opinion that the gift to the independent school was legally permissible.
Gail Mauricette, a North Bennington resident who is also the elected treasurer and clerk of the School Board, said she had “real concerns” about the way the School Board was using the money.
“I guess I’d like to say that it seems legal because the trust itself is vaguely worded (but) is it really following the spirit of this gift?” she asked.
Mauricette said that giving the money to the independent school could mean it couldn’t be used for educational programs at the public school.
Lon McClintock, an attorney who lives in an area of Shaftsbury that’s served by North Bennington, said he thought the gift would not be consistent with the will without an understanding of how it would be spent to enhance the school district.
“The prudential committee should make some affirmative findings as to what the money’s going to be used for ... and like any grant you should ask for an accounting of how the money has been actually used,” he said.
Asked if there had been a formal request for funding from the School Board, Mullineaux said there had “been discussions.”
An email sent to Mullineaux, Sutton and North Bennington Graded School Principal Tom Martin on Friday, requesting clarification about whether those discussions violated the state’s open meeting laws, was not answered as of Monday at 5 p.m.