See ballot issue to read actual wording of the proposal as it will appear on the ballot, as well as information about mail-in voting.
As its student population grows, Bennington Public Schools projects the need for increased capacity for their high school students. Bennington currently has one high school; however, accounting for growth in the lower grades, BPS projects that the high school will be approximately 200 students over capacity by the time current 5th graders reach 9th grade—assuming no major further community growth.
Last time, Bennington voters rejected a proposal to purchase bonds in the amount of $153,000,000 to build a second high school and update the existing one. This year, Bennington Public Schools has revised their proposal and is asking voters to approve $119,000,000 for the new school and the renovations. To fund the bonds, the proposal asks voters to approve an increase in the levy on property taxes.
The need to solve the problem of an overpopulated high school is acknowledged by people on both sides. Everyone also wishes to provide quality opportunities for Bennington students. The disagreements arise around the questions of whether this proposal, with its large price tag, is the best way to meet the needs—and how big the need really is.
MEETING THE NEED
The Bennington School Board’s presentation on the issue presents two options that it sees as viable: The building and updating of the schools; or the addition of modular classrooms. The Board argues that the quality of instruction, the safety of the students, and availability of electives and extracurricular activities, will be possible with the addition of the new school, but all of these will be significantly reduced if the school must use modular classrooms. BPS is particularly concerned with students’ ability to participate in sports, noting that the percentage of students in sports and activities was 82% in 2017, but 68% in 2023. With the predicted growth, if BPS maintains one high school, they will become a Class A school, and project that they will have 57% participation in sports and activities, whereas with the increased facilities provided by two Class B schools, they project 78% participation. More advantages of the proposed high school would include expanded programs for students. For example, plans call for an expanded Career and Technical Education. The new high school would house Small Engines, Welding, and Health Sciences pathway, and the current high school would house Construction Trades, Drafting, and the Education pathway. Students could choose to attend programs at either high school. BPS envisions other possibilities of coordination between the schools as well.
Those who oppose the proposal question the district’s projections as well as the interpretation of their statistics, and believe that the options presented are oversimplified and that there are other ways to provide quality opportunities for students. To them, a new school with a capacity of 1,000 students seems too large when the projected need in four years is 200 students (50 per grade). Some of their ideas include schedule modifications, a “micro-school,” expansion of school choice, the establishment of relationships with businesses to provide internships and classrooms, coordination with Metropolitan Community College, and greater participation in community sports, among others. Some parents question why the location of the new school would be only one mile away from the old school. In terms of sports participation, some parents question whether students are actually being cut from sports. If one looks at the school population in 2017, 582 students were enrolled in the high school, so an 82% sports and activities participation rate meant that 477 students were involved in activites. However, in 2023, the school population was 1002—so, a 68% rate means that 681 students were participating, which is an increase, not a decrease. BPS sources also do not specifiy what “activities” are covered in these percentages. Therefore, whether or not students are getting cut and losing opportunities, or whether they are choosing other extracurricular activities that might not be included in these numbers, taking on more responsibilities outside of school, or simply not having interest in school activities, is also an open question.
DISCUSSION OF COSTS: Individuals and the community
The Bennington School Board proposal shows how they have listened to community concerns and cut costs from their previous proposal. It reflects a smaller new building, consolidated outdoor facilities for sports fields, elimination of the natatorium (pool facility) for the second school, and fewer upgrades to the existing school, among other changes. Their estimate of the cost of the increased levy is $.049 per $1000 of assessed property value, which would add $147 per year to the property tax on a $300,000 home—less than half the cost of the proposed levy from last year, and only a $12.25 difference in the monthly payment.
Those who oppose the proposal argue that Bennington’s property taxes are already so high that people are being priced out of the community. The median price of a home in Bennington is $400,000, and current property taxes on a $400,000 home amount to $7,600 per year, $633 per month. (See property tax calculator here). In addition, the bond issue’s wording does not guarantee a $.049 limit to the levy, but rather requests voters to simply approve a levy for whatever is necessary. Some are concerned that BPS’s projections are too optimistic and that the levy will have to be increased more.
DISCUSSION OF COSTS: Budget
BPS currently has bond debt in the amount of $173,145,000 still remaining from the $198,000,000 that voters have approved in 6 different bond issues since 2003.
Proponents of the plan to build the new school explain that over the last 20 years, BPS has paid $25,000,000, but will be increasing payments to $63,000,000 over the next 10 years. Because they are now paying principal instead of interest on many of its older bonds; because many of the older bonds are set to expire as these new ones come due; and because they are on schedule with current payments, they believe that is it possible to prudently take on new debt.
Those who oppose the proposal point out that $119,000,000 will nearly double the debt that the school board already owes, and will bring back interest, with rates that cannot be predicted. They believe that the increased cost will be unsustainable for the district and detail objections about BPS’s current use of funds, the large debt-to-student ratio, and questions about whether BPS’s predictions are based on realistic scenarios.
DISCUSSION OF PROJECTIONS: Student capacity
BPS is concerned that even with no students moving in or out, the current high school will be 196 students, or 117%, over capacity in the 2027-2028 school year. Looking at the way in which the school population has grown historically, the picture is even more problematic: they would be 314 extra students, or 127.3%, over capacity, by 2027. If this historical growth continues, BPS projects that the current high school will be at nearly 150% capacity by 2029, serving a total of 1713 students. Their detailed projections can be seen here.
On the other hand, opposing groups look at the current growth of the younger grades in the district and note that growth appears to be leveling off, reducing the urgency for a new high school capable of doubling current capacity. Indeed, if the already-high property taxes keep rising, more families will be forced out of the district, keeping growth down. Thus, the situation may not be as dire as BPS predicts.
In short, the decision about the bond issue revolves around voters’ different weighing of the needs everyone acknowledges: quality education for students, and affordability for the community. For Bennington’s full layout of its proposal, including the rationale and their projections, see their site dedicated to the issue. For concerns about the financial impact and different interpretations of the numbers, see this site put together by a group of concerned Bennington citizens. Both sites provide information about voting as well.
Research and writing by Vickie Hecker
Vickie is a state employee, but her postings on this site do not speak for the views of the state, its customers, clients, suppliers, or employees. Any links to state sites are provided for informational purposes only.