Royalton, Bethel Agree To Merger

Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Royalton — Voters have approved a merger between the Bethel and Royalton school districts, a major change that sets the stage for the next generation of students.

The measure received emphatic support in both Royalton, 419-82, and Bethel, 284-36.

The newly formed White River Unified School District will take effect in July; beginning next fall, middle school students will go to Bethel and high school students will go to Royalton in the new K-12 district.

“Consolidation has passed overwhelmingly,” said Laurie Smith, a merger supporter from Royalton, moments after the vote totals were announced.

Afternoon reports of a heavy turnout had Royalton School Board Chairwoman Christine Hudson feeling favorable about the outcome.

“I think people are voting in favor of it,” Hudson said. “I think this is the best plan we could have come up with.”

Voters also elected a new six-member School Board, with three seats representing each town.

In four uncontested races, Chris Riley will fill Royalton’s one-year seat;, Andrew Jones will fill Royalton’s two-year seat; Bethel School Board Chairwoman Lisa Floyd will fill Bethel’s one-year seat; and Lisa McCrory will fill Bethel’s two-year seat.

One three-year seat in each town was contested, with unofficial vote totals showing results so close that a recount is possible.

Unofficial tallies showed that in one of two contested races, Tim Murphy was leading Shannon Morrill-Cornelius 264-197 in Royalton, while Morrill-Cornelius was leading Murphy 165-88 in Bethel, for a preliminary total of 362 for Morrill-Cornelius to 352 for Murphy.

Rodney Rainville was narrowly leading Nancy Cyphers for Bethel’s three-year seat, with a 149-141 lead in Bethel, and Royalton totals were not available at press time.

Among the four board candidates who ran unopposed, only Floyd has previous school board experience, according to Hudson.

“They will have a lot of work before them,” Hudson said.

While the new School Board will chart a course for the future, the existing school boards will be busy tying up the loose ends of the past.

“The boards in place will have to deal with all the audits and closing out of any South Royalton business that we have,” said Hudson, who expects that charge to last into next fall.

The vote is the latest effort of towns within the White River Valley Supervisory Union to comply with Act 46, the 2015 education reform law that imposes strict new standards on school districts.

In April, a three-town merger with Royalton, Bethel and Rochester received 320-67 approval in Bethel and 213-178 approval in Rochester, but was stymied by a 460-203 defeat in Royalton.

During a round of revotes in June, Royalton and Rochester both reversed their positions on that three-town plan — Royalton approved the idea 377-248, while fresh objections in Rochester led to a 236-144 rejection, which killed the plan.

That left Royalton and Bethel to explore the two-town merger, and Tuesday night was the first and only time voters are expected to weigh in on it, as a state deadline of Nov. 30 is looming.

On Oct. 18, the State Board of Education approved a school district merger proposal for Rochester and Stockbridge, with board member John O’Keefe opposed, according to draft meeting minutes.

During a presentation, White River Supervisory Union education officials from both towns indicated that roughly $334,000 could be saved by closing Rochester’s high school, which was effectively closed over the summer because of a loss of both students and staff.

All eyes will now turn to Chelsea and Tunbridge, which have had their own back-and-forth drama in pursuit of a plan that would merge school districts in the two towns into the pre-K through 8 First Branch Unified School District. The plan would close Chelsea’s high school in favor of choice for high school students.

In April, Tunbridge approved the merger on a vote of 151-109, while Chelsea residents voted 173-78, also in support. But in June, a petitioned revote in Tunbridge found voters in a different frame of mind, as they rejected the same proposal, 164-160.

On Nov. 7, voters in both Chelsea and Tunbridge will consider a modified proposal which preserves more local control, and slows plans to form a merged middle school in 2018.

Under the new plan, a future joint school board is prevented from closing a school without a majority vote within the town in which the school is located, and the new school board is tasked with a charge to “fully explore a merged middle school for the 2019-20 school year.”

Of the other towns in the White River Valley Supervisory Union, Granville and Hancock have decided to form a joint non-operating district, while Strafford and Sharon school districts intend to make arguments before the State Board of Education on the value of continuing as standalone districts within the Supervisory Union.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.