Vt. Towns Weigh School Merger

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/15/2016 11:57:23 PM
Modified: 7/15/2016 11:57:32 PM

Royalton — Education leaders in Bethel, Chelsea, Rochester and Royalton are considering consolidation options that run the gamut, from maintaining their current configuration of high schools to merging into a single large building that would handle all 1,035 students from the four towns.

Each of the four towns have K-12 schools, with enrollments ranging from 149 students in Rochester to 395 in Royalton.

A study committee made up of school board members from each of the four towns’ school districts met for the second time last week, and will continue to meet to in the coming months to achieve consensus on how the four towns might combine into a single district.

They hope to present a vision to voters on Town Meeting Day in 2017.

“I can tell you that there is a whole lot of common ground amongst all four school systems,” said Todd Sears, a member of the Bethel School Board and of the study committee. “After all the people threw their ideas on the wall, there was a sense of optimism. A sense of ‘we can get there.’ People may diverge around the margins, but I think we can move forward as one district.”

Whether the number of schools within that unified district would change is a matter for discussion.

Under Act 46, an education reform law passed last year, school districts across the state are being compelled to merge into larger administrative units.

The law is meant to curb the growing cost of education and provide a better education by providing an economy of scale that has been lost as the number of Vermont schoolchildren has dwindled over the past decades.

On July 1, the four towns officially joined with Granville, Hancock, Sharon, Stockbridge, Strafford and Tunbridge to form the White River Valley Supervisory Union, but there is question as to whether all towns will stay within the union, and whether school districts with similar grade configurations will merge with each other to comply with the law.

The study committee was formed by Bethel, Chelsea, Rochester and Royalton under the belief that, as K-12 schools, it would be relatively easy to merge their school boards, budgets and other central office operations.

Jeff Sherwin, chairman of the Rochester School Board, said he hopes that a new structure will allow for a better education for the roughly 35 high school students that currently attend the Rochester School.

“Our class sizes are very small,” he said. There’s not a lot of kids in the school. We think that by pooling, we can given them a better opportunity.”

Sherwin said it will be difficult to come up with a shared vision that will be approved by voters in all four towns.

“Everybody has to be on the same page and it’s just, what that page looks like at the end of the day is questionable,” he said.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Sears was one of many study committee members who presented broad outlines of what a merger of the four districts might look like.

In a slideshow presentation, he outlined five different possibilities, including one that would maintain the current student populations at Rochester School, the Chelsea Public School, the South Royalton School, and the Whitcomb Junior-Senior High School in Bethel.

Another option would be to transform each school into a magnet school that would provide a specialized education, such as arts and design in Chelsea and experiential education in Rochester.

A third option presented by Sears would involve moving all of the 1,035 students in the four towns into a single campus; the campus could be newly constructed or a renovated version of an existing school building, he said, and would involve more transportation costs.

Sears said it’s too early to focus on any one plan, and that he would like the committee to review all of the options before beginning to zero in on a few choice ideas.

“Enrichment and opportunity for the kids is the primary driver of all the thought,” he said.

Under Act 46, districts whose voters approve a consolidation plan by 2017 will receive financial incentives; those that wait until 2018 would be subject to a review by the state, which has the authority to impose a consolidation plan on the district; most districts in the Upper Valley have sought to avoid that outcome by working toward their own voter-approved plans.

The next meeting of the study committee will be held in August.

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

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