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School Notes: Big Changes in Small Districts

A pair of seemingly unrelated events could have a significant effect on public education in the White River Valley.

On Jan. 14, voters in Rochester, Vt., approved keeping their current K-12 school district in an advisory vote. By a count of 220-113, voters expressed a preference for keeping the high school open over turning the town’s small school into a K-8 operation.

That evening, David Bickford, superintendent of the Orange Windsor Supervisory Union, told the Strafford School Board that he planned to retire at the end of his contract term, June 30. Bickford, who has been overseeing the public schools in Royalton, Sharon, Tunbridge, Strafford and Chelsea for the past seven years, has been a prominent voice in calling for collaboration among schools, both within his supervisory union and beyond its five towns.

How are these two events related? Under a proposal before the state Board of Education, schools in Rochester and Bethel would be placed in Orange Windsor Supervisory Union. The board has put off a decision on the plan until June. With his emphasis on collaboration among schools, Bickford has been central to meetings over the proposed breakup of the Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union, which in addition to Bethel and Rochester contains the small towns of Stockbridge, Pittsfield, Granville and Hancock.

“In my view, David’s lasting achievement as far as the supervisory union goes is the collaboration among the districts in a variety of areas,” said Paul Perkins, chairman of the Strafford School Board.

“I think that David has worked very hard to get all five schools to work in a more collaborative effort,” said Don Shaw, chairman of the Sharon School Board and of the OWSU executive committee.

Under Bickford, the supervisory union’s schools have been sharing resources, centralizing curriculum, collective bargaining and special education services. Some of that work complies with state mandates, but Bickford has gone beyond that. The supervisory union holds a yearly music festival that mixes students from across the union’s towns.

Bickford also went to bat to preserve a key aspect of school choice for Strafford residents. He drafted and supported a law that allows parents to send children to a non-designated high school at the tuition rate of the designated school, rather than at the lower state average.

“That basically restored school choice to everyone in Strafford, not just those who could afford it,” Perkins said.

Bickford could not be reached for comment. In his Jan. 14 retirement letter, Bickford noted that he has been the longest-serving OWSU superintendent. He plans to work and travel a few more years before retiring, he wrote.

“I would like to thank everyone who has helped make my stay at OWSU interesting and rewarding and I wish you all the best as the SU embarks on its next chapter in the educational saga of central Vermont,” he wrote.

Before he departs, Bickford also will assist South Royalton School in finding a new principal. Gail Trotin announced earlier this month that she plans to leave at the end of the school year, after two years on the job. “He should be around to assist us through that,” said Tom “Geo” Honigford, a member of the Royalton School Board.

“It’s going to be hard to replace him,” Shaw said. The search will begin shortly, with an eye toward finding a new superintendent by April or May. “We’re going to be looking for someone who can continue on in the way that we’ve been going,” Shaw said, toward greater collaboration.

Whether any of that collaboration will be with Bethel and Rochester remains to be seen. Rochester’s recent vote suggests that the town would prefer to go its own way for K-12 schooling.

“The overwhelming majority voted to keep the high school open,” said Jolanta Labejsza, chairwoman of the Rochester School Board. Only 47 percent of registered voters went to the polls, but, Labejsza said, “I believe the 53 percent who didn’t vote would have voted to keep the school open.”

But 113 people in a small town turned out to vote against keeping the high school open, she said. “We can’t ignore that number.”

The proposed 2015 budget for Rochester School, which has only 135 students, and only 55 in high school, is nearly 1.5 percent lower than the current year’s spending, Labejsza said.

Even so, the school’s numbers are so low that its announced tuition rates of around $15,000 for elementary grades and around $20,000 for high school students are dramatically higher than at other nearby schools. Pittsfield, Granville and Hancock have school choice for all grades, and Rochester’s school relies on students from those towns to fill seats.

The proposed division of Windsor Northwest would put those sending towns in other supervisory unions, which might make it less likely that students from those towns would come to Rochester. The superintendents from neighboring supervisory unions have met, Labejsza said. “David Bickford has expressed an interest in meeting our board,” she said.

At the same time, “there’s a lot of people here in town who are interested in reaching out to Randolph,” she added.

Student Honors

Woodstock Union High School student Brian Townley tied for third place in U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ annual State of the Union Essay Contest. Three other area students — Owen Deffner, Thetford Academy, Nick Majeski, Woodstock Union High School, Rebecca Paige, South Royalton School — were among the 20 finalists.

For the last four years, Sanders’ essay contest has asked Vermont’s high school students to write an essay of 250 words to 500 words about their view of the state of the union. This year, 380 students from 26 Vermont high schools submitted essays.

The winner, selected by a panel of five Vermont teachers, was Alexina Federhen of Mount Anthony Union High School in Bennington. The essays of the winner and the finalists are entered into the Congressional Record, and the finalists are invited to meet with Sanders for a televised roundtable discussion on Feb. 1 at Vermont Public Television in Colchester.

Read the finalists’ essays at http://www.sanders.senate.gov/download/state-of-the-union-sotu-top-20-finalists?inline=file.

∎ Alexander Thomas Dodds, of Hanover, was named to the fall Dean’s List at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass.

∎ G. Peter Bensen, of Norwich, has been named to the fall honor roll at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.