Bennington School Board looks at options beyond construction bond
By Patrick McArdle
STAFF WRITER | March 04,2013
BENNINGTON — Noting that residents have been raising questions about a possible bond vote this year to build an addition to Bennington Elementary School, the Bennington School Board acted Thursday to consider other options including renting space at the former Catamount Elementary School building which they sold in 2007 and sending fifth-grade students to Mount Anthony Union Middle School.
George Sleeman, vice chairman of the School Board, said Friday he had heard from a number of residents who wanted to know why the board wasn’t considering other options besides building an addition to the school, which is projected to cost somewhere from $4.6 million to $5.2 million.
As a result, the board scheduled a special meeting Thursday during which Richard Pembroke, chief financial officer for the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, presented some alternatives.
“What we did (Thursday) night was kinda take the bull by the horns and try to put some teeth into these various (options) to get some cost figures, talk about it, get feedback from the community in order to come about to where this thing is going,” Sleeman said.
The Bennington School District has three elementary schools, Bennington, Molly Stark and Monument. Catamount was sold to a developer in 2007 as part of an agreement the Bennington School District made with voters. The School Board promised to close one of its schools, as a cost-cutting measure, if voters approved a ballot item that would send the sixth grade to the middle school.
Anticipating a “bubble” of enrollment growth, the school district has been looking for more space and reviewing options, including building an addition to Bennington Elementary School.
The School Board talked about putting a bond request on the ballot in January, but decided to instead call for a special election sometime this year.
Sleeman said he and other board members had been hearing concerns from residents that there might be a less expensive option, especially after an architect’s estimates found that what had been expected to be a $2.5 million project was likely to cost closer to twice that amount.
At Thursday’s meeting, the board voted to formally request the Mount Anthony Union School Board make a proposal to the Bennington School Board regarding what they could offer Bennington’s fifth-grade students if they were sent to the Mount Anthony district.
The middle school was built to accommodate the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students from all the towns that Mount Anthony serves, including Bennington, North Bennington, Pownal, Shaftsbury and Woodford. However, only Bennington sends its sixth-grade students to the school so there is a possibility that there’s enough space for Bennington’s fifth-graders.
Sleeman said he added to the motion that Mount Anthony should also be asked if there are five classrooms available that the Bennington School Board could rent so the district could solve its space issue without giving up its students.
According to Sleeman, the motion was an attempt to move from general discussions between the two districts to working out the parameters of an agreement so both sides could make some informed decisions and the public would have some advance knowledge so they can weigh in before anything is final.
Sleeman said he, other board members and town officials toured the former Catamount Elementary School, which is now a soccer and sports facility, on Thursday to see what space might be available to rent. Sleeman said his initial thought was that the second floor might serve the school district’s needs well.
Other options the School Board is considering include increasing class sizes, allowing some students to be tuitioned to other districts and reconfiguring the three elementary schools.
According to Sleeman, the issue will be on every School Board meeting agenda going forward until a decision is made.