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Schools Mull Merger Compliance

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/22/2017 12:08:27 AM
Modified: 6/27/2017 4:24:50 PM

South Royalton — The rejection by Rochester voters on Tuesday of a three-town merger with Bethel and Royalton extended a period of uncertainty for the fate of students in seven towns in the White River Valley Supervisory Union.

“I’d say we’re back with a full deck, and have to see where the cards get dealt,” state Rep. David Ainsworth, R-Royalton, said by phone during a break in the special legislative session on Wednesday in Montpelier.

Rochester’s 236-144 vote was a reversal from April, when the town voted, 213-178, in favor of the plan to form a pre-K-12 White River Unified School District in which Bethel would have operated a middle school, Royalton a high school and Rochester an experiential learning center. Each town would have its own elementary school.

Anni Mackay, a Rochester business owner who opposed the merger, said voters rejected the measure for a variety of reasons — some didn’t like the prospect of a lengthy bus commute for students in a merged district, some felt the whole process was too rushed, and others didn’t like the idea of relinquishing local control to Montpelier.

“Not having local control is the real issue,” she said.

But Mackay characterized the rejection as an opportunity for the community to craft a new plan that makes sense — she floated the idea of becoming a choice town.

“I think we’re going to have to get really busy,” she said. “And we’re going to have to work really hard at expressing what we believe would work and get the right people at the table. It’s time for the community to get really serious about what’s going on here.”

Now, the Rochester School Board could pursue another revote on that proposal, or work under a tight timeline to create an entirely different proposal that would have to be approved by the State Board of Education, publicly warned, and then approved by Nov. 30, the deadline established under Act 46, the education reform law that applies strict new standards.

One proposal — a two-town merger involving just Bethel and Rochester — already has been approved by the State Board of Education, and will be presented to voters at some point before Sept. 30. The proposal was drafted as a contingency that would go before voters only if at least one of the three towns rejected the original three-town proposal.

Ainsworth said that he’s also heard interest from some community members about the possibility of forming a two-town district involving Bethel and Royalton. Royalton voters initially rejected the three-town proposal in April, but reversed its position and supported it in a revote earlier this month.

“I think a two-town district, I don’t know if it would be the best plan, but I think it would be a potential solution to the dropping of student numbers,” Ainsworth said.

Christine Hudson, chairwoman of the Royalton School Board, said she herself thinks the three-town model would be the best for the students, but that she wants to give Bethel and Rochester every opportunity to make their own best decisions.

“I think we have to respect the process in their communities,” she said.

In Royalton, she said, she hopes a full meeting of the board will provide a little more clarity about what path it should pursue.

“There are so many variables,” she said.

A decadeslong, statewide pattern of dwindling student populations is what led to Act 46, which seeks to improve educational opportunities and lower costs by encouraging smaller districts to combine into units that will have a better economy of scale.

Rochester has 141 pre-K to 12 students, including 33 in high school, according to state enrollment data. The three towns together have 377 students in those grade levels.

Across Vermont, as of Monday, voters in 119 towns had approved unification of 129 school districts located in 28 supervisory unions into 28 new unified school districts, according to Donna Russo-Savage, principal assistant to the Secretary in the Vermont Agency of Education.

School districts that miss the November deadline have until Dec. 26 to argue that they should qualify for an alternative structure — one that meets the goals of Act 46, but does not conform to one of the approved governance structures outlined in the law.

In a May 17 memo to the Royalton School Board, Russo-Savage seemed to indicate that the three towns are not good candidates for proving they would merit an exception to the law.

“Although it is impossible to predict what the (State Board of Education) may or may not decide 18 months in the future, the Royalton School District will have the obligation of demonstrating that, despite its very small size, it is a sustainable governance structure capable of meeting both the educational and financial goals of Act 46 now and in the future,” she wrote. “Proving this may be more difficult given the analysis and conclusions underlying the study committee’s proposal to create the White River (Union School District), which the SBE approved at its February 2017 meeting — and which will be among the documents the SBE will consider when creating the Statewide Plan.”

The deliberations in the three towns also has consequences for four other towns in the White River Valley Supervisory Union.

In April, Chelsea and Tunbridge voted to merge their school districts into a proposed pre-K through eigth-grade First Branch Unified School District, while Granville and Hancock voted to form the non-operating Granville-Hancock Unified School District.

Under the original Act 46 law, those districts would only have been valid if they are grouped with a preK-12 district within the supervisory union, commonly referred to as a side-by-side structure. If Rochester, Bethel and Royalton didn’t come up with some sort of approved plan, the side by side could be lost, leaving the other four towns to rethink their process. But a new measure enacted last month no longer requires one of the side by side districts to operate pre-K-12, so it’s possible Tunbridge and Chelsea could proceed, but state education officials say it would likely require new affirmative votes there and in Granville and Hancock.

Tunbridge is scheduled to hold its own revote on June 29, and Kathy Galuzzo, a member of the Tunbridge School Board, said the vote carries high stakes for the community. “If the vote holds, Tunbridge will be in a waiting pattern to see what happens with the K-12s,” she said.

“If the vote fails, then we’re done and we have to come up with another plan or wait to see what the state decides to do.”

Galuzzo said the extended period of uncertainty and the fervor of the debate has hurt relations within and between neighboring tows.

“It’s really heartbreaking,” she said. “People are voting yes out of fear for what the state could do. Other people are voting no, thinking that nothing will happen. And they’re just mean to each other. Board members are not wanting to continue anymore.”

One situation that everyone is trying to avoid is missing the Nov. 30 deadline, after which the State Board of Education is authorized to review each district and impose a merger from above.

Krista Huling, chairwoman of the State Board of Education, said it’s too early to say what that ultimately will mean for those districts.

“We were talking about it two days ago during a retreat in Jay Peak,” she said. “There will be some tough conversations and choices, and we haven’t decided what that means. We have to step back and look at the state and see what makes sense.”

Huling said that the board will consider plans based on their merits, even if they’ve already been rejected by local communities.

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

Clarification

Under a measure enacted last month that amended Vermont’s Act 46 school consolidation law, Tunbridge and Chelsea could still form a new district and receive state subsidies even if Bethel, Royalton and Rochester don’t merge in a so-called “side-by-side” district. But the merger would also likely require new affirmative votes from Tunbridge, Chelsea, Granville and Hancock voters, according to state education officials. An earlier version of this story did not take into account the ramifications of the new law, which no longer requires that at least one of the side-by-side districts operates all grades between preK and 12, as the Bethel-Royalton-Rochester district was intended to do.




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