After Defeat, Royalton Residents Seek Second Vote on School Consolidation

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/25/2017 1:21:11 PM
Modified: 4/26/2017 12:07:53 AM

Royalton — A group of Royalton residents have announced they are seeking a second vote on a school consolidation plan that was defeated in town earlier this month but passed in Bethel and Rochester.

The newly formed Royalton Re-Vote Committee includes former Royalton School Board member Laurie Smith, who said she was convinced a revote was needed when members of the community began telling her that they voted against the consolidation without understanding all the facts.

“As more people have spoken up, that’s what inclined me to think that, for Royalton to have a fair vote, our community needs to be better informed,” Smith said on Tuesday.

Consolidation opponents, who helped defeat the measure 460-203 on April 11, expressed a variety of reservations about a plan they said was too costly, too vague and gave up too much local control.

Smith and other consolidation supporters say the plan will provide a better education for Royalton’s students, including more class offerings in Advanced Placement courses, engineering, medical science and computer science.

Opponents said the better programming was outweighed by longer bus rides for middle school students and the prospect of having only three seats on a nine-member, three-town school board.

Supporters of consolidation said that it also is the best of a limited suite of options available under Act 46, the 2015 education reform law that seeks to shepherd school districts into larger and more cost-efficient administrative units.

Under current law, school districts that don’t submit voter-approved merger plans to the State Board of Education by July 1 risk having the state impose a merger. Districts that miss the deadline also miss out on financial incentives that the state has offered to help nudge communities into action.

The failed proposal called for Bethel, Rochester and Royalton to merge into a new White River Unified School District, where grades six through eight 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 through eighth-grade 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 have gotten 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.

Because all seven of those districts in the White River Valley Supervisory Union needed to approve the plan unanimously, Royalton’s “no” vote has left the other six towns in limbo. Rochester and Bethel school officials have indicated that they will seek to move forward with a White River Unified district that does not include Royalton.

Royalton Town Clerk Karmen Bascom said revote advocates would need to submit a petition by May 11, 30 days from the original vote, signed by about 110 registered voters — 5 percent of the town’s checklist.

The petition would then be presented to the South Royalton School Board, which would have to hold a new vote within 60 days.

The Re-Vote Committee is now working to gather the signatures needed to submit the petition by May 10. Smith said that the revote would need to be warned for 30 days, which would leave little margin for error before the July 1 deadline under Act 46.

State Rep. David Ainsworth, R-Royalton, said he felt it’s too soon for the town to revisit a decision that was just made so decisively.

“I suggest they talk to people, or do surveys and find out what the reasons were for voting yes or no,” he said, and “try to make a summation of what to do, or not do, from there.”

Ainsworth said he is advocating for S. 122, a bill that would extend the Act 46 deadline beyond July 1, which would give the town time to consider other alternatives.

The House Education Committee passed an amendment to S. 122 last week, clearing the way for it to come to the floor for a vote sometime this week.

Smith, the former School Board member, said that giving Royalton more time wouldn’t matter because its only viable merging partners are Rochester and Bethel, which have already committed to the plan on the table.

“What other options does Royalton have?” she said. Under the law, Smith said, Tunbridge and Sharon are not legal merging partners, and proposals that involve Randolph or Hartford are fundamentally objectionable.

The proposed bill would expand the types of school district governance structures allowed under Act 46, but it was not immediately clear how those changes, if approved, might impact Royalton and other towns in the White River Valley Supervisory Union.

Yuliya Ballou, who helped to organize opposition to the consolidation in Royalton, declined to comment, instead referring questions to a handful of other consolidation opponents. Efforts to contact those opponents were unsuccessful.

Geo Honigford, who was the most vocal proponent of the merger among the five-member Act 46 Merger Study Committee, said he is not a part of the Re-Vote Committee effort, but would happily cast another vote in favor.

“I think I would be a distraction if I were involved,” he said.

John Olmstead, a former South Royalton School Board member who helped form the Re-Vote Committee, suggested the vote failed because the change was so fundamental to the community.

“It can bring out strong feelings that sometimes help and hurt the process,” he said.

Olmstead said the new committee is emphasizing outreach to the community.

“It had more to do with all segments of the community struggling to recognize the financial, governance and educational benefits to the community,” he said. “Regardless of which side of the question you’re on, all want the best for our kids. In considering a revote, the goal is make that information known so a fully informed decision can be made.”

The Re-Vote Committee is scheduled to meet next at 7 p.m. on Monday in the South Royalton School cafeteria.

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




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