White River Valley Plan Would Combine Middle and High Schools

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/26/2016 10:00:09 PM
Modified: 12/28/2016 3:04:46 PM

Three White River Valley towns will consider a school consolidation plan that, if state officials and voters approve, would combine their middle and high schools.

A committee composed of residents and school officials from Bethel, Royalton and Rochester, Vt., which aims to bring the towns into compliance with the state’s education reform law, Act 46, selected the plan in a unanimous vote last week in Bethel.

The proposal would leave each of the three towns with a pre-K to 5 elementary school, and would locate a shared middle school in Bethel and a shared high school in South Royalton. There would also be an outdoor experiential education center in Rochester.

If voters approve a consolidation plan before July 1, 2017, the three communities would qualify for financial incentives.

“We just feel like if at all possible we’d like to meet the deadlines to be able to realize the financial incentives,” said the committee’s Chairwoman Lisa Floyd, of Bethel. “Although they’re not huge, I think for our communities it’s nice to be able to do that. That was our charge when we came together as a group.”

Those incentives include an initial reduction of 6 cents on the towns’ property tax rates; a transition facilitation grant of $150,000 in the first year of the new district, and Rochester’s small schools grant — valued at $164,885 this year — which would continue as a merger grant if the districts consolidate, according to materials the committee provided at community meetings earlier this month.

Cost was certainly a factor motivating the decision. For example, if Rochester fails to comply with Act 46, taxpayers there may face an increase of nearly $1 per $100 of property value by 2022 — from $2,858 for a home valued at $200,000 this year to $4,726 for a home of the same value in 2022 — according to estimates provided by the committee.

“We have to do something,” said Jeff Sherwin, a committee member and chairman of the Rochester School Board. “If we don’t do anything, our taxes will come close to doubling.”

But cost isn’t the only consideration at play. Committee members are also seeking to increase the opportunities available to students in all three communities.

“I think model one could be great,” said Christine Hudson, a member of the committee who lives in South Royalton, referring to the plan the committee chose. “I agree it would be the best to improve education (and) have more offerings.”

At community meetings earlier this month, committee members said consolidating the three towns’ high schools into one would expand the number of course sections available in South Royalton from 42 to 72. As smaller schools, Whitcomb High School in Bethel and Rochester currently offer fewer than Royalton’s 42 course sections in high school.

Additional benefits would include larger class sizes, which would help expose students to a wider range of perspectives in discussion-based courses, said committee member Geo Honigford, of South Royalton. Some such courses currently have enrollments of fewer than five students, he said.

Similarly, combining the schools would increase the size of the band, broadening its sound, and it would allow the combined school to offer junior varsity teams, something not often available at the individual high schools now, Honigford said.

“I think we’re going to create something better for students than what we have,” Honigford said.

Moving forward, the committee will draft articles of agreement that would form the basis of the new district. The articles may include details such as ensuring the three elementary schools will remain open for a fixed number of years, and determining whether the new district or the individual towns will take on ownership of the existing school buildings and associated debt and capital reserve funds, Honigford said.

“It’s pretty exciting,” he said. “This is a chance to rebuild an education system. (These opportunities) don’t come along very often.”

Though last week’s vote was unanimous, concerns remain about the 20 miles Rochester students will need to travel each way in order to attend high school in South Royalton. The committee estimates this trip will take about 40 minutes.

Jessica Arsenault, a non-voting member of the committee from Rochester, said she opposed the consolidation plan the committee selected.

“Transportation is a huge part of it,” said Arsenault, a 1996 Rochester graduate with young children.

“It’s not just time on a bus, its the geographical landscape that these cars and buses have to travel through,” she said, referring to the mountains that surround Rochester.

The time students would spend on the bus would be time not spent doing other things, such as studying, participating in extracurricular activities or being with their families, Arsenault said.

She would have preferred to move forward with an alternative plan that would have included the outdoor education center in Rochester and the three pre-K to 5 elementary schools, as well as two middle schools, in Rochester and South Royalton, and two high schools, in Bethel and South Royalton.

“I have a hard time believing that we can get model one to pass here,” she said. “We would rather merge with Bethel.”

In addition to sharing concerns about transportation for Rochester students, Hudson said she also has reservations about whether the statewide push for consolidated schools will meet one of its key goals: greater equity.

Though the stated purpose of the law is to provide equal opportunities to all Vermont students, Hudson noted that it also protects school choice. School officials in Sharon and Tunbridge — which have school choice for grades 7-12 and 9-12, respectively — opted not to participate in the study committee with Bethel, Rochester and Royalton.

“If my child lives in South Royalton, I have no choice,” Hudson said. “I don’t think Act 46 is necessarily going to make this more equitable for everyone.”

During the month of January, the committee will have a series of meetings to prepare a report to submit to the state Board of Education in February. If the state board approves the plan, it could appear before voters in April.

Hudson said she hopes to have much more information about the benefits of the proposed consolidation plan before the committee takes it to voters.

“It has to be better than what we have now — financially and academically,” she said. “If both of those things don’t happen, I don’t know that I’ll be able to ask people to vote for it.”

The committee’s next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 3, at 6 p.m., at South Royalton School.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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