Royalton — Voters in Royalton on Tuesday struck down plans to consolidate the schools with Bethel and Rochester, throwing a wrench into proposed mergers in neighboring towns.
Royalton voted 460-203 against the merger, halting a proposal to consolidate the three towns’ school districts. The failed vote also stops Tunbridge and Chelsea from merging into a new school district, as well as Hancock and Granville.
A 320-67 approval in Bethel and Rochester’s 213-178 favorable vote weren’t enough to save the plans, as the consolidation needed all three towns’ OK to move forward.
Tunbridge and Chelsea residents voted to merge to form the First Branch Unified School District, which would have served students from pre-K through eighth grade. High school students would have gotten school choice as part of the consolidation, and Chelsea would have closed its high school.
Tunbridge approved the merger in a vote of 151-109, while Chelsea residents voted 173-78 to support it.
The towns of Granville and Hancock also voted on Tuesday to form the non-operating, pre-K through grade 12 Granville-Hancock Unified School District. The vote passed 23-3 in Granville and 35-4 in Hancock.
However, the smaller consolidated districts cannot stand on their own and required the creation of a Royalton-Bethel-Rochester district to pass state muster, said Steve Dale, an educational consultant hired to guide the seven districts through consolidation.
“The fact that the Rochester-Bethel-Royalton vote did not succeed means that, at least for this moment in time, none of them can be implemented,” Dale said on Tuesday night. “There will need to be a reconvening of all those seven school districts to talk about exactly what to do next.”
Prior to Tuesday’s vote, Bethel, Rochester and Royalton had planned to create the pre-K through 12th grade White River Unified School District. Plans called for a single budget and school board, and consolidation into fewer school buildings.
Under the proposal, each of the towns would have continued to operate pre-K through fifth grade elementary schools. Students in sixth through eighth grade would attend middle school in Bethel before going to high school in Royalton.
Although Rochester would shut down its high school, the proposal called for the building to be re-purposed into an experiential learning center, where students would be provided with hands-on learning experiences.
Dale said a “yea” vote from every town would have allowed the new districts to receive tax incentives as part of Act 46, Vermont’s school consolidation law. Now, he said they can either hold a revote or hope the Legislature extends the June 30 deadline to receive those tax breaks.
“I feel like this has been a really collaborative process from the beginning,” said Lisa Floyd, one of the chairwomen of the districts’ Act 46 study committees, on Tuesday night. “The only thing I know is that over the next few days and weeks we are going to have to meet and try to figure out a path forward.”
“I think that there was a group in Royalton that saw this plan as not great for their community and so they came out and voted,” she said when asked why the vote failed.
Campaigners were active outside of the South Royalton School on Tuesday, as residents held signs drumming up support and opposition to the vote.
“We need a better model where our South Royalton needs are addressed and we can help our neighbors,” merger opponent Yuliya Ballou said outside of the polls on Tuesday afternoon.
Ballou said she supports school consolidation, but the plan presented to voters wasn’t worth a “yea” vote, partially because it wasn’t able to incorporate more towns.
“We’re hoping for more flexibility in the law, Act 46, because we’d like to work with more than just three towns,” she said.
Royalton resident Peter Chap also voted against the merger, saying the committee that put it together didn’t do enough to include community input.
“It’s premature, too rushed too quickly,” Chap said of the consolidation. “It was conceived without really building local support.”
Chap also took issue with plans to bus students from Rochester to the district’s other towns. It’s not fair to those students, he said, and deprives them of community supports that the other towns might get.
Laurie Smith, a former Royalton School Board member, disagreed with Chap’s characterization of officials who drafted the proposal.
“The committee met for six months. They had an incredibly thorough and intensive process,” she said.
When she served on the School Board, Smith said, she found it was difficult to promote change with a limited budget and student population.
“I just really believe that the education of all the kids in our area would be for the better if we could bring everyone together,” she said.
Royalton resident Brad Cornelius agreed, and said school consolidation has long been expected from the state.
“It’s been coming, we’ve known it’s been coming,” he said. “This is our opportunity to do it on our own terms rather than having a laissez-faire approach, stepping back and having the state do it for us.”
In Chelsea, voters were more torn over the decision to merge, knowing it would lead to the end of the town’s high school.
“I like the idea of the high school kids having more choice in their pathway for high school,” said Marty Gratz, a paraeducator at the school.
When she took the job about 25 years ago, her son was attending and classes were a “good size,” she said. Now they’ve dwindled to about 52 students in grades 9-12.
Will Gilman, who owns Will’s Store, said he understands the challenges that brought the state to enact Act 46, but said it shouldn’t have forced changes on small towns.
“I think a lot of us are very sad to be put in this decision by the state of Vermont,” he said. “Little schools are a big part of small communities and when you’re suddenly forced to have to make decisions that should be made over a long period of time, to me, it’s wrong.”
“I voted with my heart, not my head,” Gilman said, declining to say whether he supported the consolidation.
Tim Camerato can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3223.