hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News June 2019



Judge bars college from selling arts center


The founders of the Bennington Center for the Arts have gone to court in an effort to annul their gift of the center to Southern Vermont College.

In a lawsuit filed May 21 in Bennington Superior Court, Bruce Laumeister and Elizabeth Small argue that when they agreed to donate the arts center and its collection to the college in late 2017, they did so on the basis of “false or misleading” information provided by college officials about the institution’s financial health. The college is now shutting down after its accrediting organization deemed it no longer financially viable.

The Bennington Banner reported that, based on the couple’s legal complaint, Judge David Barra granted a temporary restraining order barring the college from selling the arts center. The judge wrote that the materials submitted by Laumeister and Small showed “a reasonable likelihood that plaintiffs will succeed on the merits of their claims.”

Laumeister and Small built the arts center in the early 1990s and operated it until they donated the property to the college in December 2017. The 36,000-square-foot complex on Gypsy Lane, just off Route 9 west of Old Bennington, includes seven galleries and a 315-seat theater on nearly 6 acres of land. In court papers the plaintiffs estimate the property is worth more than $2 million and the art collection is worth another $2 million.

The lawsuit contends that when the college agreed to accept the center as a gift, college President David Evans, who stepped down last month, misrepresented the college’s financial condition by claiming that the institution’s debt was low, that its enrollment was rising and that the college could afford to sustain the arts center’s annual operating costs of about $100,000 a year.
When the college announced in March that it would close, Evans said its enrollment had dropped from a peak of about 500 students in 2012 to 340 this year. The college has about $6 million in debt.

In their lawsuit, Laumeister and Small claim that in agreeing to take over the arts center, Evans was motivated by the prospect of adding to the college’s assets and thereby making its financial situation appear less dire to accreditation officials.

Southern Vermont is one of three colleges in the region that are in the process of closing in the face of financial pressures brought on by declining enrollments and the diminishing pool of college-age students in the Northeast. Green Mountain College in Poultney and the College of St. Joseph in Rutland both had their final commencement ceremonies last month.

In other news from around the region in May:


Pro-gun slate loses 2 of 3 seats in Saratoga

A school board election in Saratoga Springs that became a referendum on gun violence and the Second Amendment ended with pro-gun forces losing ground.

Much of the campaign leading up to the May 21 election focused on whether to overturn a decision last fall in which the local school board voted 5-4 to prohibit grounds monitors at school events from carrying guns. The district’s 14 grounds monitors, most of whom are retired police officers, had routinely carried guns in the past. But board members who voted to end the practice cited research they said showed guns didn’t make schools safer.

After the school board’s decision was featured on the online network of the National Rifle Association, a local citizens group, Saratoga Parents for School Safety, formed to press for a reversal of the board’s vote.

The group endorsed a slate of three school board candidates, all of whom pledged to support re-arming the grounds monitors, and it raised more than $33,000 to back them – a huge sum in a district where school board candidates typically raise and spend less than $500 on their campaigns.

But when voters cast ballots for three school board seats on May 21, only one of the candidates backed by Saratoga Parents for School Safety, Dean Kolligian, garnered enough votes to secure a seat. The two other top vote-getters, John Brueggemann and Natalya Lakhtakia, opposed allowing the grounds monitors to carry firearms.

If the winning candidates hold to their positions and the remaining board members vote as they did last fall, that would give the school board a 6-3 majority against re-arming the grounds monitors.
-- Compiled by Fred Daley