Woodford considers options should Bennington leave SU

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WOODFORD — The Woodford School Board met on Wednesday, and expressed concern about the state of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union's Act 46 study committee.

After Bennington officials declared they were investigating withdrawing from the SU and forming their own district, smaller districts such as Woodford have been scrambling to figure out what effect this would have on them, especially with important deadlines under Act 46 coming up next year.

"We don't really know where we fit into this," said Woodford board member and Act 46 committee representative Dick Frantz, "Do we wait for Bennington to figure out what they're going to do, and then tuition in? I don't know."

He expressed concern that, should the SU not find an acceptable solution to come into compliance with the law before the deadline, the state could step in and re-align the school districts as it sees fit. Despite assurances from the state that Act 46 does not encourage the closing of schools, Frantz worried that Woodford's school could be a casualty in such a re-alignment.

"Currently," he said, "I think Bennington is daydreaming," citing the time it would take to study leaving the Mount Anthony Union district, hold votes in each of the MAU communities, and form a new district. According to the Agency of Education's Act 46 timeline, proposals must be either approved by voters, if it is one of the preferred models, or sent to the state for approval, if it is an alternate structure, by November of next year. Districts would have to be operational by July of 2019, in any scenario.

"I'm still optimistic, but maybe I'm naive, that the basic structure we have now can continue, but restructured," said SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen, who said that, even under the preferred model, in which the SVSU would become a single district with a single board, towns could have advisory committees that fill the same roles that the current boards do, and could write into the charter that the new SVSU could not close their schools. One major difference, in that scenario, would be that votes on the primary board would be distributed proportionally based on student population, meaning that Bennington would control roughly two-thirds of the votes. Frantz and Culkeen both agreed that they didn't see this as being a problem, as the MAU and SVSU boards have shown that representatives from different towns are able to work together and listen to each other's concerns.

The Act 46 committee will next meet in the library of the Village School of North Bennington on Thursday, April 7, at 6:30 p.m. At that meeting, the board will vote whether or not to dissolve the committee. Besides Bennington, North Bennington has also expressed interest in going on alone, so as to seek out better partners. As Culkeen pointed out, only the SU board can dissolve the committee, but there is nothing to prevent representatives from simply not going to the meetings. Frantz said he intended to vote against dissolving the committee. "Disbanding doesn't seem like it would do anything," he said.

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.


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