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Royalton Principal Resigns After Voters Choose to Merge Schools



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, October 28, 2017

South Royalton — The day after voters approved the merger of the Bethel and Royalton school districts, Principal Dean Stearns tendered his resignation to the Royalton School Board amid tensions at the South Royalton School.

The resignation, for what Royalton School Board Chairwoman Christine Hudson characterized as “personal and professional” reasons, will take effect in June, coinciding with the expected transition to the newly created White River Unified School District.

“It wasn’t the right situation for him, is the basic summation of it,” School Board member Geo Honigford said of Stearns’ resignation letter. Efforts to reach Stearns on Friday were unsuccessful.

Members of the School Board voted to formally accept the resignation letter early in their regularly scheduled Wednesday meeting, following a 16-minute executive session with Stearns and White River Valley Supervisory Union Superintendent Bruce Labs. Near the end of the meeting, the board held a second closed-door session to discuss a “personnel matter” with Stearns and Labs, which lasted for 52 minutes.

In between those two executive sessions, both students and teachers formally expressed dissatisfaction with the “climate” of the school.

Lisa Dragon and Cass Bath, representing the local teachers union, the White River Valley Education Association, “shared a stressful workplace climate concern” with the board, and requested a closed-door meeting with the board to discuss it, according to draft minutes, which counted 18 teachers in attendance.

“When our representatives are ignored, reprimanded or silenced, our legal avenue for addressing workplace concerns is eliminated,” read the letter, according to an excerpt released by Deborah Allen, the union’s building representative at South Royalton School. “This leaves us with no safe and effective way to communicate our concerns and feedback.”

The letter excerpt said teachers had tried to work with administrators for the past three years without resolution.

“Consequently, we ... are here to request the opportunity to present specific concerns to the board,” it read.

But the School Board declined to meet behind closed doors with the teachers because, Hudson and Honigford said, the teachers had not followed a policy that requires grievances first be brought to the principal, and then the superintendent, before being brought to the board.

The teachers had gone to Stearns, but not Labs, with their concerns, according to board members, who also declined to receive their letter.

“They will talk with Bruce,” Hudson said. “If they don’t feel that they’ve resolved their issues, then they could ask to come back to the board.”

On Friday, Allen said teachers were “disappointed and frustrated” with the way the board handled the request, and feel that they’ve made a “good faith effort” to work with Labs.

The teachers are also in the midst of a contract negotiation, and have been unable to come to an agreement.

Efforts to reach Labs on Friday were unsuccessful.

According to draft meeting minutes, students George Carr and Emily Heman spoke about tension within the student body. They said that too many initiatives were started “without a purpose,” and that they would like to see the school reinstitute a morning meeting to build school spirit.

Hudson said the student concerns were largely about the uncertainty of their future in the new merged school next year, and the difficulty in moving away from school identities that they’ve grown up caring about. Beginning next year, all middle school students in the district will go to Bethel, while all high school students will go to Royalton.

“It’s so important, I feel, how we need to respect that the kids finish out their last year as Royals and Hornets, and still be able to find a balance for them to get together and come up with their new identity, and mascot and colors.”

The resignation, and the tensions within the school, come in the wake of an overwhelming vote of 419-82 in Royalton and 284-36 in Bethel to form the new district.

Preliminary vote totals show that Shannon Morrill-Cornelius and Rodney Rainville have prevailed in close contests over their respective opponents, Tim Murphy and Nancy Cyphers.

Rainville won over Cyphers on a vote of 149-141 in Bethel and 190-163 in Royalton. Murphy led Morrill-Cornelius, 264-197, in Royalton, but ultimately came up 10 votes shy of Morrill-Cornelius’ vote total after she won, 165-88, in Bethel.

Murphy initially asked for a recount after the vote, but on Friday said that he had rescinded his request. Royalton Town Clerk Karmen Bascom said on Friday that the vote totals won’t be considered official until the expiration of a 10-day period in which candidates can ask for recounts.

Morrill-Cornelius and Murphy both were active in the debate over the school district merger; Murphy, who opposed the consolidation plan, wrote a letter to the editor of the weekly The Herald of Randolph during the summer expressing his views on the issue. Morrill-Cornelius, a consolidation supporter who characterized Murphy’s letter as misinformation, attempted to prevent people from reading it by purchasing more than 100 copies of the newspaper.

Now, Morrill-Cornelius, a genetic counselor at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medial Center who graduated from South Royalton School in 1998, said she is eager to see people from both sides of the debate participate in the shaping of the new district.

“We’d like to put together a community advisory board made up of a wide swath of community members and we’d like input from everyone,” she said. “We want people to be bringing things to us if they have concerns.”

It’s not clear when the new board will meet for the first time. The consolidation plan won’t carry full force until the expiration of a 30-day period during which a revote could be petitioned for, and Morrill-Cornelius said meetings will have to be warned after that.

“We’re anxious to all sit down together and start getting stuff on paper,” she said.

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

Correction

Shannon Morrill-Cornelius graduated in 1998 from South Royalton School. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described what high school she attended.