Act 46 committee to meet with or without North Bennington

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BENNINGTON — The Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Act 46 Study Committee is set to begin meeting in early May, with or without the representatives from North Bennington.

SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen made the announcement on Wednesday during the regular meeting of the Mount Anthony Union board. "We got an opinion from our attorney," he said, "The boards that have voted to join, we can go ahead and meet. North Bennington can join us whenever they desire. So I anticipate that we'll have a meeting no later than the second week of May of those boards that have voted to join."

North Bennington remains the last community of the SVSU that has not voted to join the new committee, which was created by the SVSU board at the end of February. This formal study committee replaced the SU's informal exploratory committee, which disbanded in early February. Before it dissolved, the exploratory committee made a recommendation to the SVSU board that a formal committee be formed to finish the process of writing articles of agreement and pursue a merger under a Modified Unified Union District model. Voting on the consolidated board would be apportioned in a manner similar to how the MAU board is arranged now, with members elected by the entire electorate despite representing smaller districts. It also recommended that all districts in the new committee be considered "advisable" rather than "necessary," so that if a merger vote failed in one town, the others could still move forward.

In February, however, Culkeen told the SVSU board that the SU's legal counsel had informed him that the board cannot place requirements like that while creating the committee, and that the new committee would have to decide those issues for itself. North Bennington's representative on the SU committee expressed concern about that ruling at North Bennington's meeting last Wednesday, suggesting that a conflict of interest could exist, as the SVSU's lawyer, Steve Stitzel, is also employed by the Vermont Board of Education. He requested a written statement from Stitzel explaining why the conditions recommended by the exploratory committee could not be placed on the new study committee, and said that without that North Bennington did not have enough information to join the committee.

The MAU board will not have voting representatives on the board, as it is made up of the communities of the SVSU rather than the districts.

North Bennington has been somewhat of an outlier in Act 46 discussions from the beginning, as the law does not allow a straight merger between districts that have differing levels of school choice. Unlike the other districts in the SVSU, which do not have school choice at any level, the North Bennington Graded School District does not operate a school in grades pre-K through six. Instead, the district pays tuition to other area schools, primarily the independent Village School of North Bennington.

North Bennington's desire to leave the SVSU's first study committee was a large factor in the board's decision to disband last August, as that district's representatives wanted the freedom to seek options elsewhere that would allow them to expand school choice to grades seven through 12. The situation was complicated by North Bennington's membership in the MAU district, however, and North Bennington's representatives, Matthew Patterson and Bruce Lierman, ended up among the most active participants in the exploratory committee meetings.

"I don't want to keep (the other districts) from putting anything together," said Mullineaux last week, "Because if they can put together this other district, more power to them. I don't want to stop them from doing that, I think they could go ahead and do that now. But I do want to know whether we go into this without conditions or whether it is possible to have these conditions that guarantee a particular direction and a particular mode of voting. Because I know that the committee has a lot of power once it's underway, and I don't want to be termed as 'necessary' when we want to be 'advisable.'"

Reach staff writer Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122 or @DerekCarsonBB

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