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Consolidation: What Went Wrong?

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/16/2017 1:14:50 AM
Modified: 4/16/2017 1:16:12 AM

South Royalton — Emotions are high, time is short, and very big decisions are on the table for education officials in seven towns in the White River Valley Supervisory Union, where Royalton voters blocked the region’s long-gestating school consolidation plans Tuesday night.

Because approval was needed in all seven towns, the emphatic 460-203 rejection in Royalton scuttled the plans for Bethel, Rochester, Granville, Hancock, Chelsea and Tunbridge, all of which favored the proposal.

In the days following the vote, school officials were scrambling to discuss whether they could craft a revised plan in time to avoid a possible state-mandated restructuring.

“I don’t think they know what they’ve done. Bethel and Rochester are apoplectic with rage,” said Geo Honigford, who helped to craft the plan both as a member of the Royalton School Board and that town’s Act 46 Study Committee.

The failed proposal called for Bethel, Rochester and Royalton to merge into a new White River Unified School District, where grades 6-8 would attend a middle school in Bethel and high schoolers would come to Royalton.

Chelsea and Tunbridge would have merged into a new pre-K-8 First Branch Unified School District. The high school in Chelsea would have closed, and possibly converted into a middle school, while students in grades 9-12 in both towns would get school choice.

Meanwhile, Granville and Hancock would have formed the non-operating Granville-Hancock Unified School District, and students in those towns would have school choice.

On Friday night, school officials from Bethel and Rochester indicated that they might move forward with another version of the same plan, minus Royalton.

“We don’t trust Royalton at this point,” said Todd Sears, who represented Bethel on the study committee. “It’s fresh. It’s raw. Time heals all things, but right now, there’s no trust there.”

Over the last several weeks, as more Royalton community members began hearing about the proposal for the first time, the rhetoric between pro-consolidation and anti-consolidation camps heated up, with the opposing sides circulating contradictory literature to residents.

Sears called the opposition camp the “negativist juggernaut.”

Study Committee Chairwoman Lisa Floyd, also from Bethel, said that, though a handful of people spoke up repeatedly against the consolidation at public meetings, she simply underestimated the strength of the opposition.

“I didn’t realize they were such formidable foes,” said Floyd.

Kathy Galuzzo, a consolidation proponent who sits on the Tunbridge School Board, said significant opposition never formed in Tunbridge, because there was more of a culture of collaboration with residents.

“We never pressured the community, and the vote that we got was a true sense of what the community was looking to do,” she said.

Districts across the state have been drafting consolidation plans to comply with Act 46, an education reform law that seeks to make education in Vermont more efficient by shepherding school districts into larger units that can provide more programming to students at a lower cost. As of March, 104 school districts serving 60 percent of Vermont students had merged into consolidated structures, including 20 new unified union districts.

With the future of the White River Valley’s plan now very much in doubt, area residents said they’re working through an atmosphere of high emotion, confusion and uncertainty.

Emily Marshia, clerk of the Chelsea School Board and mother of four children, three of whom are still in the Chelsea school system, said students are feeling the stress from the fallout.

“It’s very real,” she said. “They’re asking questions of their teachers and faculty that no one can answer right now. ... There are freshmen and sophomores wondering, ‘Where will I graduate from?’ I would describe it as significant emotional distress and confusion.”

SoRo Says No

Much of the ire from neighboring towns has been focused on Royalton’s Act 46 Study Committee members. All five members voted to approve the measure in late January, but during a public meeting held on the eve of the vote, four members declined to express support, and instead indicated varying degrees of opposition. Honigford was the only study committee member who maintained his support of the proposal.

He called the reversal of opinion by the other committee members — Christine Hudson, Tim Murphy, Jennifer Stratton and Bridget Barry — “unconscionable.”

Barry and Carpenter did not return calls or emails seeking comment. Hudson explained her position during a telephone interview Thursday.

“I know a lot of people are really upset right now. They want to place blame,” said Hudson. “I still feel that educationally, it would have been a great model. But for South Royalton, I just think that ... we weren’t benefiting financially as much as the other towns were.”

The study committee projections showed the owner of a $200,000 home in Rochester would save about $2,000 on his or her tax bill, while a homeowner in Royalton would pay about $15 more, she said.

“Part of me feels really bad that this didn’t go through, but I wanted the voters to make the decision. This decision wasn’t my decision,” Hudson said. “This was the voters’ decision.”

Hudson said that, during the Monday meeting, vocal members within a crowd of about 60 people challenged her neutral stance.

“People pressured me,” she said. “They said how can I justify the finances on this vote? … Toward the end of the meeting, someone started to badger me.”

Hudson said the merger would have been good for South Royalton’s students, but challenging for its taxpayers.

“I’m not only worried about the kids’ education. I’m also worried about taxpayers being able to keep their homes. … I needed to see, is this going to be a long-term financial benefit?” she said.

Honigford blasted Hudson and the other committee members.

“She felt pressured, and she caved,” he said. “Folks in Bethel and Rochester are literally enraged that we made them go down this path, and then pulled out.”

But, though Honigford said much of the furor from merger supporters is focused on the study committee, he doesn’t blame them for the outcome of the overwhelming defeat.

“Over the last week, I could feel it slipping away,” he said. “The ‘no’ side, which always said we don’t want any merger, changed its tune and said, ‘We need to consolidate but this is not a good plan.’ That was a good move by them, clearly.”

People on both sides said no one component of the proposal caused its failure.

“I don’t think there was any singular reason,” said Marshia. “I think it was very different for different people.”

Yuliya Ballou, a foreign language teacher and South Royalton resident who opposed the measure, agreed. Ballou was part of the group Concerned Royalton Citizens, which formed in opposition to the consolidation plan.

“Many people felt that this was rushed, that there wasn’t information. ... Many felt that this model wasn’t benefiting South Royalton enough, or that it wasn’t creative enough. Some people would really like to keep our pre-K to 12. These are just some reasons,” she said.

Others didn’t like the tax increase, especially compared with the decrease projected in other towns, or objected to busing middle school students to Bethel.

The total vote in the seven towns amounted to 1,113 votes in favor and 899 against, which some saw as a victory for consolidation.

“It just feels huge,” said Marshia. “Three towns voted ... to close their high schools. Now we don’t know what to do with that.”

But when Royalton voters decided that their interests didn’t align with those of the region, the vote itself served as an example of the local control that some residents are fighting to keep.

“Many people felt they would lose control, because (in a merger) they would have only three votes on a nine person unified board,” said Ballou.

Sears said the vote underscored a fundamental mismatch between Royalton’s values, and those of Bethel and Rochester.

“I don’t think that the increase of opportunity and efficiency is a priority,” he said Saturday. “They want their kids to do well, but their priority was the maintenance of status quo, the maintenance of local power, the taxes — they’re very money-focused there. That’s what they voted on. If you look at it that way, it kind of makes sense.”

The actions of school officials in the days since the vote suggests there is little room for the three communities to continue to work together.

What’s Next?

The path forward, both for Royalton and the other towns, is unclear, and there are a series of Act 46 deadlines on the horizon that make a quick solution desirable. School districts have until July to gain approval for consolidation plans from both the state Board of Education and district voters. In order to meet public warning deadlines, this means any merger proposal would have to be presented to the state board during its May 17 meeting — just a month away.

Districts have until Nov. 30 to prove a merger is not needed to meet Act 46’s goals of affordability, equity and quality. White River Valley Supervisory Union towns Sharon, Strafford and Stockbridge are seeking state approval under this exception, but Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe has said it’s unlikely Royalton’s current school district would meet these standards for its 380 students.

After November, the state can exercise its Act 46 authority to come up with its own consolidation plan for school districts.

“The State Board will issue a final statewide design that realigns unmerged districts into more sustainable models of governance that meet State goals — to the extent realignment is necessary, possible, and practicable for the region,” according to Act 46 materials from the Agency of Education.

White River Valley Superintendent Bruce Labs said he felt that the proposal was a benefit for the educational program, and the students. But, he said, he’s not sure the state will exercise a heavy hand against Act 46 holdouts.

“It remains to be seen whether they’ll make everybody merge with somebody,” Labs said. “We’ve heard that will happen at some point but when we get to that point, who knows what will happen?”

Honigford said that, while he will serve out the remaining year on his School Board term, he won’t serve on another study committee, which he said has bleak prospects.

“I’m done,” he said. “I got a serious smackdown. I don’t chase windmills with a sword riding a donkey. I’m not going to be on a study committee that’s going to go nowhere and do nothing.”

One of his gripes is that consolidation opponents haven’t identified a way to comply with the law.

“I’m going to predict they have no other plan,” he said. “This is a nice bait and switch.”

When asked, neither Ballou nor Hudson articulated a specific vision for Royalton’s future.

“I don’t think we should stay pat. I definitely think we need to move forward with our options. If those are still with Bethel and Rochester, that would be great. If not, we’ll have to find other options. We have to regroup and see as fast as possible what they are,” said Hudson.

“Ultimately the South Royalton School Board will be making the decision about our next steps as a community,” Ballou said. “It is important that the board study all the options that the community has, and looks at what we have right now under the current time frame.”

Both said they felt it was important for the community to play a larger role in crafting a new plan.

On the Concerned Royalton Citizens Facebook page, posting members referred to the ‘no’ vote as the first step in a larger campaign to have Act 46 repealed, or dramatically altered. Posters suggested a wide range of options, including rekindling a relationship with Bethel and Rochester that had more favorable terms for Royalton, or seeking new partners.

Education officials are also closely watching the progress of S. 122, a legislative bill that would give more flexibility to school district mergers. The Senate bill would extend financial incentives to a wider range of merged structures, and would also extend the July deadline for voter-approved plans to November. The bill passed the Senate earlier this month and was sent to the House Committee on Education, where it is still being discussed.

On Wednesday, 32 House representatives, including 10 Upper Valley legislators, sent a letter to the House Education Committee advocating for several amendments that would give districts even more leeway.

On Friday night, during a meeting of the study committee, members — including Sears, Floyd, Hudson, and other members from Rochester, Bethel and Royalton — came face to face with one another for the first time since Tuesday’s vote.

During the meeting, Sears said the following day, emotions ran high, and there was a lot of venting.

The committee voted unanimously to form a subcommittee to explore a new plan, one in which Bethel and Rochester would form their own two-town district within the supervisory union. Sears and Floyd said the model is lacking in some of the program enhancements that made the three-town merger so appealing, but will allow the towns to comply with Act 46 and receive the state’s financial incentives before the deadline. They also called it an intermediary step that would allow them to contemplate a more sustainable long-term plan with another partner town — perhaps Randolph.

“We’re mourning a loss,” said Floyd. “I loved that proposal. That’s what I wanted for the future of our kids. But I think we have to be practical.”

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




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