From left to right: Mill Moore - executive director of the VT Independent Schools Association; Erin Gallivan - lawyer who worked on the application for the Village School of North Bennington; Tom Martin - 'Head of school' of the Village School of North Bennington.

On Monday, January 25, when the former principal of North Bennington Graded School, Tom Martin, reflected on the process of transitioning from a public to an independent institution, he told an audience of 60 Valley community members at the Warren Town Hall, “If you want it, you can make it happen.”

Martin was part of a panel organized by the Warren community and he spoke with Erin Gallivan, a lawyer who worked on the application for Martin’s school until it was granted independent status in 2013, and Mill Moore, the executive director of the Vermont Independent Schools Association.

The forum was intended to provide information about alternatives to what would occur under statewide Act 46: which many see as a loss of local control. While the law mandates that management and budgets of school districts be combined and centralized across Vermont, the panelists said that independent status would afford a school — not a district but the school itself — the opportunity to maintain control of these elements.

The Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) Act 46 study committee, composed of representatives from each Valley school, has unanimously decided to proceed on an accelerated path toward the implementation of Act 46 and the public will vote on this expedited merger in May or June.

The WWSU and study committee members have cited tax incentives as the primary motivation for pursuing the merger quickly, but Warren community members have repeatedly voiced that neither Warren nor Waterbury will see significant benefits. There have also been concerns about Valley schools losing the power to make decisions that affect their local realities, as one centralized board would govern all schools that become consolidated.


In an independent structure, “the power balance is equalized,” Moore said. Whereas a public system sees that schools answer to districts, which then answer to supervisory unions at the top, this hierarchy is eliminated with independence. Those working within schools make decisions that affect policy, curriculum, budget and a host of other factors that would normally be decided for them externally.

The panelists said that Act 46 is a complicating factor in the process and Moore said that districts would continue to be consolidated under the law while independent schools maintained their individuality. Panelists were eager to point out the difference between a school, which is part of the municipality, and a district. To conflate the two is an enormous mistake when trying to sort all of this out, Gallivan said.

Most independent Vermont schools fall within a category called “approved,” meaning their status is granted by the board of education and the sources of funding, panelists said, hardly changes from the public model. They believed that Warren Elementary School would fall into this category.


Although Vermont is home to about 134 independent schools that educate close to 10,000 students, Moore said, the Village School of North Bennington is one of two Vermont schools to shift directly from public status.

In 2013, Martin’s school completed what he said was a three- to four-year process of gaining independence including a yearlong period in which over 100 public forums were held. Martin is no longer the principal of North Bennington Graded School but is the “head of school” of the Village School of North Bennington, acting as the school’s chief executive officer — hiring staff, managing the school’s budget and other duties that would be shared among a principal and superintendent within a public school model.

Martin said that when he arrived in North Bennington, the school was suffering from the impact of Act 68, which allocates funding based on enrollment numbers and penalizes towns when spending exceeds a certain amount per student. The formula in North Bennington reached a point where the town would have soon been penalized and “the school didn’t want to put that on the community,” Martin said.

So the school entered into a cycle of budget cuts, for which they reduced 5.5 teachers, as well as programs in art, music, library and math. Martin said that school administration realized that under the public model, “local control is an illusion,” and many wondered if the town would eventually vote to close the failing school.

After investigating options for different school structures and learning that the school could save money by associating with a different supervisory union, they began looking for partners. Martin and other citizens formed a nonprofit organization made of 10 individuals and filed an approval application for independent status, which is reviewed and can later be recommended for further processing by the Agency of Education (AOE).


Moore said that while the process is completely legal, “The AOE will think it’s anathema.” Anyone filing an application, he said, “should expect all kinds of opposition.”

Gallivan said that the state stalled their application, postponing the finalization of the process for an additional year and that “just because the law says something, doesn’t mean the state follows it.” The AOE and the board of education are constantly “redoing the rules” that encompass the approval process, she added, but once the application is approved by the AOE, the process will almost surely be completed in time.

There are two separate legal components to the overall process, Gallivan explained. The first step is for the community and school district to vote to close the public school and the second is to open the independent school, for which a school can use the same building and staff.

Then, there is lots of “behind the scenes work,” Martin said, to get everything set up and the legal fees can be a challenge as well.


Since the daunting process that Martin and his colleagues faced is now over, he said that the school is doing more for the students while spending less overall. The school’s budget has decreased from $1.9 million to $1.8 million since 2013, but, he said, “The AOE doesn’t like to hear that.”

The panelists said that special education funding still comes through the state, although indirectly, and that schools can create contracts with vendors for transportation and a free lunch program, just as they currently do with their supervisory unions within a public school model.

The Village School at North Bennington never considered cutting teacher’s salaries or benefits, Martin said, and schools must put an end to ongoing conversations about money in favor of those that address how students should be educated.

He added that the school has been successful in giving teachers more power in creating curriculum and that even though they are not required to be licensed, “The department of education will tell you that there is no concrete link between teacher quality and licensure.”

While many uncertainties still linger, the panelists said that community members should first ask themselves what they want their Valley schools to look like — the “elemental questions,” Martin said. If local governance and school choice, which are always afforded with the independent structure, are primary goals in the community, the rest can be figured out as they go.

With Act 46, one community member commented, “We’re a teacup in a tidal wave; why does it have to be that way?”