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Vermont public school goes independent, raises ire from state bureaucracy

By   /   October 11, 2013  /   News  /   3 Comments

Part 11 of 126 in the series Educating America

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

THE VILLAGE SCHOOL opened in 2013, after the local public school closed. Students enjoy the school’s first first-day-of-school parade.

When North Bennington Graded School closed its doors and the Village School opened in the same building, it looked like a win-win.

The public school had been stuck in a downward spiral – decreases in student population led to declines in state funding that required cuts in the programs the small Vermont community valued.

The local board had little control over the school, and there were rumors that the state might consolidate the school with another town’s.

Local residents came together, closing the public school entirely and opening the Village School, an independent town academy operating under the state’s town tuitioning program, in which the state effectively pays tuition instead of funding schools.

But that option may not be available to other communities facing similar challenges.

Within the State Board of Education, Vermont Agency of Education and the legislature, some say the conversion is an abuse of the tuitioning law, and there’s no guarantee the independent schools will provide local students with the education they deserve.

“It was a pretty contested process, and it took over a year and a half. In a large part, the state has not been supportive,” said Eva Sutton, former school board member who helped with the conversion. “It’s very gratifying to have a school that’s operational. We’re all very pleased about that.”

State Rep. Johannah Leddy Donovan, a Democrat from Burlington who chairs the education committee, proposed a bill last year that would have prevented such conversions. The bill failed, but a study committee will report its findings in mid-December, just in time for the legislative session beginning in January.

Independent school advocates are gearing up for an uphill legislative battle.

Tuitioning: A different approach to public education

INDEPENDENCE: Vermont’s independent academies, shown here, enroll students who don’t have a local public school.

While most school-choice programs – vouchers, for example – date to the 1990s, Vermont’s town tuitioning program began in 1869, the year Harriet Tubman got married and Leo Tolstoy published “War and Peace.”

Today, the population of Vermont is smaller than Detroit’s, and the state never has been a booming, metropolitan hub. In some towns, it didn’t make sense to operate a school because there weren’t many school-age kids.

Nevertheless, the state had an obligation to provide every child a free education, so it began tying education funding to students instead of schools.

If a town doesn’t have a public school, public funding will follow the student to any public or independent school — including out-of-state and out of country — as long as the school isn’t faith-based. (Faith-based schools were permitted till 1961; three state Supreme Court cases later, they’re not permitted.)

Some independent schools, called town academies, serve students the way a public school would. If a town agrees to make up the difference between tuition and baseline state funding, the school guarantees admission to local students.

Some Vermont communities didn’t build public schools because they already had a town academy. The oldest, Thetford Academy, has been operating since 1819.

Only twice in the state’s history have public schools converted to independent schools. In Bennington County, parents frustrated with high taxes funding a school they weren’t satisfied with converted it to the Mountain School at Winhall in 1998.

Parents are happier with their kids’ education, said Darren Houck, head of school, and the tax burden is lighter.

In North Bennington, it was a different story.

North Bennington, Vt.

Photo courtesy Tom Martin

CONVERSION: This building housed North Bennington Graded School and is now home to the Village School.

Tom Martin has been the principal at North Bennington’s elementary school for eight years.

“When I first arrived here, one of the primary concerns that surfaced, even in the interview, was that the school would not remain open, that eventually forces were working around that would close the school,” he said.

The student population was declining, and the state had been working to consolidate some school districts. North Bennington residents feared their school would be targeted because it was so small, Martin said. Today, 125 students are enrolled at the school.

Furthermore, state funding is linked to enrollment, and both were declining.

“The board can’t control the costs of fuel oil, or electricity. They are what they are,” and they were going up, Martin said.

“They found themselves going into the budget to control costs in the only area that they had control, which was the program.”

Local control became an issue. The supervisory union – one step between the local district and the state – controlled many of the district’s expenses — labor agreements, contracts, salary increases, health care.

“We went through draconian reductions — art, music, library programs, and these are programs the community values a great deal. It was very painful for the school,” Martin said.

The cuts stabilized finances for a while, but school board members knew they’d be fighting the same battle in a few years when enrollment and funding decreased even more and other costs increased.

“You’re not going to keep doing that, to a point where the school will no longer resemble the school you want,” he said. “People will say, ‘What do we need the school for?’”

The school board “looked into the future and saw it coming and said, ‘What are we going to do?’” Martin said.

An investigatory committee was commissioned to look at options. First, they polled the community, and residents said having a local school was “vital,” said Sutton, who chaired the committee.

The committee explored options, including connecting with a different supervisory union, which is an umbrella school district made up of several local school districts. Closing the school and encouraging families to establish an independent town academy seemed the best option.

So they did. The Village School guarantees enrollment to all North Bennington students, including those with special needs.

“Now, as a staff, we own the school. We can work really hard here every day to make sure this is a place where people who live here want to send their children, and maybe parents in neighboring districts want to send their children,” Martin said.

“We can recruit children from other districts, from overseas, so we can look at enrollment as a strategic part of our overall plan. Enrollment is no longer something that’s done to us based on residency.”

Pushback from the state

Other schools have been considering a conversion, said Mill Moore, executive director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association.

“It always is very small districts where they’re feeling threatened, either by high costs or threats of consolidation, for example, but nobody has made any formal proposals at this point,” he said.

There’s an ongoing conversation about the high cost of Vermont education and alternatives to the existing model, as residents feel the stress on their property taxes, Moore said.

Many in the State Education Department and Legislature were displeased with North Bennington’s conversion and are working to prevent other schools from following suit.

“I would still love to find a way to make it harder for a public school to do this. We have not yet found a way. I plan on maybe having a conversation with the attorney general to see if there is some way in which we could just make it more difficult or absolutely not allow a public school to become a private school,” said Donovan, the state representative.

Last year, Donovan sponsored a bill that would have made independent conversion impossible for public schools. The bill failed.

PUBLIC SCHOOL ADVOCATE: Johannah Leddy Donovan hopes to disallow public schools from converting.

Donovan opposes these conversions because she said sees herself as a “strong advocate for public education” — for the students and for the community.

Independent schools may not offer everything owed to students, she said, particularly special needs students who have a right to special education provided by the school district.

“I could see a possibility where some child with special needs wouldn’t be able to get the service at the new private school which used to be public,” she said. “That child might look different from the other children in the district.”

“We, as a community, all of us, regardless of whether we have children, we have a civic responsibility to offer our children a very, very excellent education. It’s to our benefit as citizens that we educate the next generation, and we do it as a community, as a public community,” she said.

Independent schools take away that sense of community, she said.

“The taxpayers of that community are really just paying a bill right now. They’re not really part of the community; it’s no longer a public entity,” she said.

She said she didn’t see any advantage to converting a public school, and any reform should be done by improving the existing public school system.

The battle ahead

Since Donovan’s bill didn’t pass, a summer study committee was commissioned to look into the issue — specifically, the financial impact of the state funding independent schools and the consequences of an independent school board not being publicly elected. The report will be published Dec. 15.

Robert Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute, called the committee a “farce.”

The study committee was unable to gather enough information to conclude anything, and Vermont Secretary of Education Armando Vilaseca will write the report, said Julie Henson, who sat on the committee and represented independent schools.

“There was no vote-taking on the summer committee, no recommendations made, and we never fully discussed the pros and cons of the things we were tasked to look at,” Henson said.

Vilaseca, who was not available for comment, has said committee members will be able to see the final report before it’s published, but has not agreed to allow them to discuss the final version or make changes, Henson said.

“Those of us who represent independent schools don’t know what it will look like,” she said.

She and Roper said there are strong feelings among the state education administration that independent schools shouldn’t get public funds for any reason. They expect the summer report to hit the fan in January, when the legislative session begins.

Roper and Moore said their organizations intend to educate the legislature about independent schools and school choice.

“Every time you talk about school choice and see ‘Waiting for Superman,’ it’s always about an inner city school that is imploding and totally dysfunctional,” Roper said. “The kids are failing, there’s metal detectors and drugs rampant, and we need school choice to fix that. That gains the most sympathy but school choice works in the suburbs. Vermont is where it is.”

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org

Part of 126 in the series Educating America
  1. Arizona mom won’t give up on special needs kids, no matter what state says
  2. Reviving a 1970s lawsuit, DOJ would keep black students in failing schools
  3. Relocating sexually abusive teachers would be more difficult under Pennsylvania bill
  4. DOJ backpedals on Louisiana voucher lawsuit
  5. Court says charter schools won’t pay for Atlanta’s pension debts
  6. Biggest education impact from shutdown? Furloughed bureaucrats
  7. Appeals court upholds Arizona school choice program
  8. Indiana’s voucher program expands; diversity a factor in one family’s choice of school
  9. ‘Vouchers don’t do much good for students’ claim is false
  10. NYC mayor’s race could affect school choice
  11. Vermont public school goes independent, raises ire from state bureaucracy
  12. Arizona education savings accounts aren’t vouchers, study says
  13. Legal institute fights Alabama union’s attempt to repeal school tax credit
  14. Experts: School choice improves education in public schools
  15. SC school-choice program helps special needs kids, could expand
  16. DOJ wants Louisiana parents out of voucher lawsuit
  17. U.S. House passes bill to prevent ‘passing the trash’
  18. ‘Non-traditional’ journalists barred from viewing tax-funded test results early
  19. New center hopes to help charter schools help kids with special needs
  20. Charter school advocate to Philadelphia schools: Listen to parents
  21. $45 million not enough for Philadelphia teachers’ union
  22. Study: Rhode Islanders support school choice
  23. Study: Choice would help failing Chicago schools
  24. Scholarships could lift SC school dedicated to real-life, hands-on learning
  25. Parents make good school choices, study says
  26. Divisive charter school reform bill headed toward vote in PA
  27. In Louisiana school voucher lawsuit, DOJ changes gears
  28. Opponents sue Washington to overturn charter school law
  29. School choice proponents’ challenge? Educating parents
  30. Judge: Federal oversight may not hamper school voucher program
  31. PA lawmakers push to amend tight teacher furlough policies
  32. College ready: A Milwaukee inner-city school success story
  33. Proposed economic furloughs could slay sacred cow of seniority in Pennsylvania schools
  34. What is Massachusetts doing right?
  35. Goldwater to appeal Louisiana school voucher decision
  36. Want to end poverty? Educate the kids
  37. Breakdown in Philly schools not only about the money
  38. North Carolina scholarship program on firm legal footing, attorney argues
  39. Philadelphia school district threatens charters
  40. Belief in student ability key to success at Milwaukee charter school
  41. Three things to know about Philadelphia’s school budget: Debt, pensions and safety
  42. Choosing to sue: Here’s a look at some 2013 lawsuits involving school choice
  43. Philly charter schools outperform district counterparts
  44. California students sue state over ineffective teachers
  45. Study: Public supports parent choice in education
  46. Under new management, Philly Renaissance Schools show growth
  47. New Orleans tops school choice index
  48. AZ to consider four school-choice expansion bills
  49. Florida family ‘blessed’ to be apart of scholarship program
  50. PA lawmakers put education at top of agenda in election year
  51. Louisiana: Feds ‘more interested in skin color than … education’
  52. Charter school for Philadelphia foster children will not be renewed
  53. Governor ties proposed PA education funding to targeted grants
  54. WA’s first charter school serves children, families of ‘extreme poverty’
  55. Vermont attempts to take independence from independent schools
  56. Philly stumbles on way to simplifying enrollment system
  57. Plan for Philly schools keeps charters in check
  58. Missouri ballot initiative would increase funding for public, private schools
  59. New York charter school focuses on family, community
  60. NC school vouchers on hold
  61. WI voucher bill would help special needs students denied open enrollment
  62. Philadelphia schools will end another year in red
  63. PA universities expect state, students to pick up tab on rising tuition
  64. Two ESA bills get House support in AZ
  65. Thousands rally to support New York charter schools
  66. California’s defense begins in Vergara trial
  67. Accountability or overregulation? Charter supporters split over Minnesota bill
  68. PA considers empowering universities to authorize charter schools
  69. Bill would make Florida students eligible for scholarships
  70. To test or not to test? Florida school choice proponents split
  71. Philly school district broke, but the pay is good
  72. Philadelphia charter school sues public school district
  73. Colorado Supreme Court to hear school voucher case
  74. Vermont to reconsider education funding formula
  75. Arizona Supreme Court allows school choice program to stand
  76. Massachusetts charter school bill revived
  77. Quality schools matter more than racial integration, black leaders say
  78. FL again takes up school-choice bill
  79. Choice Media’s videocast tackles host of education issues
  80. Ending teacher seniority rules beyond Philly requires legislative action
  81. New website helps Detroit parents choose schools
  82. Philly schools caught on funding merry-go-round
  83. Louisiana bill would coordinate school choice programs
  84. New D.C. charter school lottery eases but doesn’t eliminate waiting lists
  85. Federal bill attempts to help replicate high-quality state charter schools
  86. Philadelphia schools awaiting taxes from city, state
  87. ACLU alleges discrimination in 138 NJ districts
  88. MN anti-bullying bill could have unintended consequences
  89. Mississippi’s special needs bill to return next year
  90. Illinois considers three-year ban on virtual charter schools
  91. Violent Philly high school source of worry
  92. Auditors examining troubled Philadelphia school district
  93. Civil liberties organization sues to overturn anti-bullying law
  94. Legal conflict over teacher seniority in Philly heats up
  95. Academics, culture help mom choose private school
  96. PA cyber charter schools could be funded by state, not districts
  97. Arizona expands school choice program
  98. The sticky statistic of statewide charter school performance in PA
  99. Louisiana offers new vocational technical program
  100. Benefits are driving high personnel costs in Philadelphia schools
  101. Educators look to grow with expanding Hispanic demographic
  102. Philadelphia flexes muscle over charter schools
  103. Philly school district facing another bleak budget
  104. Andre Agassi dedicates Indianapolis charter school
  105. For PA and neighboring states, school spending and graduation rates don’t add up
  106. At long last, PA school buses could be getting a boost
  107. Arizona charter schools need funding fix, proponents say
  108. Progress reports for Philadelphia schools show uneven achievement
  109. Teachers union opposes ‘Bad Teachers’
  110. Governor’s plans to boost education funding falls short
  111. Georgia’s school-choice program draws legal challenge
  112. Missouri parents want more choice in education
  113. U.S. lawmakers to consider charter school bill
  114. Florida’s school choice expansion awaits governor’s signature
  115. PA charter schools may see drop in funding with new special education formula
  116. In Nevada, your child’s school records could cost $10K
  117. AG, lawmakers propose similar updates to PA charter school rules
  118. NC school voucher program gets temporary green light
  119. Philly school district’s lack of transparency frustrates families
  120. Bullying motivates many parents to home-school, attorney says
  121. Philadelphia City Council gambles to fund schools
  122. PA Supreme Court pushes forward charter school’s lawsuit against Philly
  123. Feds consider joining school choice game
  124. Florida’s new school choice law likely to spark others
  125. California teacher reform lawsuit sparks copycat, more likely to come
  126. School choice is popular — when parents know about it
  127. What can private schools learn from charters?


Mary was formerly a national education reporter for Watchdog.org.

  • Suzy

    This such a wonderful example of a local community getting together to do what’s best for their community. Yeah, for Bennington, boo hiss for the big brother crowd in Montpelier.

  • Feelingrobbed

    I have no children, yet I have to pay 1 1/2 times the tax rate because I’m a non resident. I could own 2 houses and live in VT and pay standard taxes with nine kids in the school system and I would pay regular taxes. But just because I am a non resident I get tucked. It’s just wrong and robbery.

  • NotFromBennington

    It seems that Donovan’s concerns over disenfranchised taxpayers were addressed when they voted for the conversion! There will be ample opportunity to take corrective action if and when they actually run afoul of the public interest. Vermont’s hierarchical education policy machine might benefit from a spark of innovation now and then. Successful ventures need to be properly financed and well thought out. All Vermonters have reason to be proud of this one. Do we really need a law to protect us from this kind of hard work?