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First Branch Unified School District in flux as Chelsea eyes exit, grade split nears

  • Seven seniors, Chelsea High School's final graduating class, march from the school to the village green for commencement in Chelsea, Vt., Friday, June 8, 2018. “The world is crying out for you, and the world has many needs,” senior class advisor Stephanie Joyce told the class during her address. “The world needs your honesty, the world needs your fairness, the world needs your integrity.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/19/2021 7:41:19 AM
Modified: 12/19/2021 7:41:05 AM

CHELSEA — Almost since its creation four years ago, the First Branch Unified District has been under tension, with some residents trying to pull it together and others trying to pull it apart.

Even as the district’s board is budgeting for a plan to restructure its two schools in Chelsea and Tunbridge, Chelsea residents have authorized a Town Meeting vote on whether to leave the district.

Voters approved putting the measure on the warning at a Special Town Meeting Dec. 6 by a vote of 19-12, a small turnout of Chelsea’s 930 or so registered voters.

Also, the principals at the district’s schools in Chelsea and Tunbridge announced that they plan to depart at the end of the contract year, June 30.

Both men, Mark Blount at Chelsea Public School and Michael Livingston at Tunbridge Central School, said they felt the district should have new leadership to implement a new grade structure at the two schools.

“We’re sad to see both of them go,” Kathy Galluzzo, chair of the First Branch district’s board, said in an interview.

Next fall, the district will move from two preK-8 schools to a preK-4 school in Tunbridge and a grade 5-8 middle school in Chelsea. Grouping the district’s nearly 220 students in this way will lead to greater financial stability, better instruction and better social arrangements for students, according to a district report.

Livingston, a longtime head of school at Sharon Academy who came out of retirement to work in Tunbridge, is in the second year of a three-year contract. He said it would be better to have someone new get in on the ground floor of the new arrangement.

“I’m not going to ask to be the person who’s there for one year of that,” before handing it off, he said.

When Blount’s tenure at Chelsea Public School ends on June 30, he will have been there for 10 years and seen the system through the 2018 closure of its high school.

“I think at this point, after my years here and the fact that we’re now moving into K-4 and 5-8 configurations, I think this is really time for new leadership to move this work forward,” Blount said.

The district plans to replace the two principals with a single principal and an assistant who will oversee the two schools, Galluzzo said.

The unified district was created by a November 2017 vote and was part of a wave of school consolidation in Vermont. Discontent over whether the unified district has provided the benefits its supporters believed it would is driving the reconsideration in Chelsea, Selectboard Chairman Levar Cole said in an interview.

“Folks in Chelsea wanted to take a stab at it, I guess,” Cole said.

The reorganization plan is meant to address some of those issues, but it raises a new problem: Not all Chelsea residents are comfortable sending their youngest schoolchildren to another town, even if Tunbridge Central School is less than 6 miles down Route 110.

Both Chelsea and Tunbridge have voted in the past to reconsider their membership in the district. Chelsea voted, 183-132, in January 2018 to reaffirm its membership, and Tunbridge residents rejected a proposal to leave the district, by a narrow vote of 144-135, this past January.

A financial analysis by the White River Valley Supervisory Union in advance of the Tunbridge vote found that severing the district would have cost taxpayers substantially more than staying in it, around 20 cents per $100 of assessed value.

If Chelsea votes to leave the district, Tunbridge would have to schedule a vote of its own, and the State Board of Education also would have to sign off.

Galluzzo pointed out that even if Chelsea votes to leave the district, the School Board is drawing up a budget for the restructured schools.

“I think if people are patient, the changes people wanted to see are coming,” she said.

Blount started work in Chelsea in July 2012, and the following month the town celebrated the 100th anniversary of the school’s opening, a celebration that included a school reunion and a play featuring 85 students about the school’s first 100 years.

“It was a very celebratory year,” said Blount, a native of Michigan who came to Chelsea from a school district in New Hampshire. He said he plans to stay in education, most likely in the Twin States.

The first decade of Chelsea Public School’s second century has been marked by struggle, with declining enrollment followed by the graduation of the high school’s final class, when seven students received diplomas in 2018. The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t helped.

Blount said he feels First Branch is poised to fulfill its promises to its community.

“I think we’re in a good position and I do think that the efforts that we’ve been putting in will pay off as our new schools come online in the fall,” he said.

That’s contingent on the district staying together, he said.

“I think it’s absolutely essential that Chelsea continues to work as part of First Branch Unified District,” Blount said. “A lot of work and time have been put in on ensuring that quality education will move forward in the fall of 2022.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.


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