White River Valley Towns Consider Merger Plans

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/12/2016 10:00:16 PM
Modified: 12/12/2016 10:00:16 PM

Study committee members from Bethel, Royalton and Rochester last week presented residents with three possible models for consolidating the towns’ schools to comply with the state’s education reform law, Act 46, and to take advantage of associated financial incentives.

If the towns don’t approve a consolidation plan by July 2017, they will not qualify for financial incentives and the State Board of Education could force the towns to consolidate their schools.

“We don’t want Big Brother doing it for us,” said Chris Mattrick, a committee member from Rochester, during a presentation last week in Bethel. “We want to do it ourselves.”

In all three proposals currently under consideration, the newly combined district’s schools would be governed by a single board. Each community would maintain its own preschool to 5th grade elementary school and an outdoor experiential education center in Rochester would be available for place-based learning. There would be choice among schools within the district.

But the three models differ in how they would organize schooling for the new district’s middle and high school students.

In the first model, students from all three towns would attend middle school (grades 6 to 8) in Bethel and high school (9 to 12) in South Royalton.

In the second model, there would be middle schools in South Royalton and Rochester and high schools in Bethel and South Royalton.

In the third model, there would be a middle school in each of the three towns and two high schools, in Bethel and South Royalton.

Click here for a larger version of the graphic above.

Though the committee has narrowed the scope of its study to these three proposals, there are still a lot of details to be addressed, including whether the state Board of Education will approve these plans. The three-town consolidation wouldn’t reach the suggested school district size of 950 students in any of the proposals under consideration.

According to a timeline provided to meeting attendees, the committee aims to submit its report to the state Board of Education for its approval in February. If the state board approves the merger plan, it would come before voters in April. If approved, the new district would spend next school year building a budget, before beginning operations in July 2018.

If voters do not approve a plan, the Agency of Education would submit a consolidation plan to the state board by June 1, 2018.

Some community members were excited by the possibility of increased educational and extracurricular opportunities, while others were daunted the prospect of Rochester students spending an additional 40 minutes traveling to South Royalton on the bus.

Bethel resident Kricket McCusker said she worried that Rochester voters would reject the model with just one high school in South Royalton because of transportation concerns.

During the Bethel presentation, she asked committee member Geo Honigford, of South Royalton, whether the committee had given “any thought to picking one that would get approved.”

Honigford said that selecting a plan unlikely to win approval would be counterproductive.

“We would lose time,” he said. In this case, “time is literally money.”

At risk in the case of a delay beyond July 2017 is 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. If voters choose to form the new district before July, it would also be eligible for a transition facilitation grant of $150,000 in the first year of the new district and a reduction of 6 cents on the towns’ property tax rates for the first few years of the new district’s existence.

Bethel resident John Ennis attempted to assuage concerns about the increased time on buses, saying that when his family lived in Maryland, a school consolidation there meant his kids spent more time on the bus.

“We thought it was going to be awful,” he said of himself and his wife, Tamela, who sits on the Bethel School Board.

In the end though, their kids found that the time flew by as they socialized with their friends, he said.

Ennis expressed support for consolidating the three high schools into one in order to expand the number of course sections available in South Royalton from 42 to 72. As smaller schools, Whitcomb and Rochester currently offer fewer than Royalton’s 42 course sections in high school.

Ennis’ son, Samuel Ennis, the valedictorian of Whitcomb Jr.-Sr. High School’s class of 2015, would have liked to have spent his senior year at Bethel’s Whitcomb High School, but would have foregone 12 college credits, John Ennis said.

The school is too small to be able to offer AP classes, so students seeking to get a head start on college often turn to options that take them out of Bethel, such as the Vermont Academy of Science and Technology program at Vermont Technical College in Randolph, said Ennis.

Samuel Ennis is now a student at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, his father said. He has enough credits to double major in history and politics.

In Royalton the night after the Bethel presentation, there was both support for consolidation and concern about losing the pre-K to 12 school, which acts as a community anchor.

Resident Dan Kinney urged fellow community members to embrace a new model of education.

“We need to stop being afraid of change, because it’s coming,” he said.

Elizabeth Willhite said she liked how the first model would separate students in different developmental groups and allow elementary students to stay in their home communities.

Not having attended a K-12 school herself, Willhite said, “it does not feel comfortable to me at all.”

She said she worries that, as is, 6th graders sharing space with 12th graders might feel pressured to fit in. Instead, she said they “should be allowed to be children as long as they can be.”

Former School Board member Laurie Smith expressed strong support for the consolidated high school under option 1, which she said would provide more opportunities for students. It was a sentiment echoed by several others in attendance.

“We have a lot to feel really good about,” she said of South Royalton School. But, “I don’t think we’re doing enough.”

The mother of three middle-schoolers, Smith said the school isn’t sending enough students to college, not sending them to “good enough schools” and she worries about the students who are not college bound.

“My big concern is that we are not aspirational for our children,” she said, adding that she didn’t think the other two models would help South Royalton improve, she said.

She also noted that there are other union high schools and middle schools in the state, such as Woodstock, to look to for advice.

“This is not a wild and crazy proposal,” she said.

But, not everyone was enthusiastic about the first model. Gaylynn Huyghebaert, a South Royalton resident and art teacher at the school, expressed support for the two models that would leave all Royalton students in South Royalton.

“I’m just an advocate for a home community for K to 12,” she said.

She said she worried that more schools would mean more transitions for students, which could “impact the trajectory of learning.”

Huyghebaert also asked committee members who would be responsible for the school buildings should the districts consolidate. They said they will need to address that question after they choose which model to pursue.

Huyghebaert is one of the signators of a letter to the South Royalton School Board, which was published in The Herald of Randolph last Thursday. In it, Royalton residents Huyghebaert, Dorothy Chap Rikert, Peter Chap, Phoebe Roda and Yuliya Ballou ask that the board delay its action on the proposal until questions relating to buildings and land ownership, transportation and classroom and staffing issues are answered.

At the Royalton meeting, town Recreation Director Kerri Rogers said she worried that sending middle school students to Bethel would reduce the time she has with her children.

“How can we still have dinner as a family?” she said.

Committee members received the public’s wide-ranging input in a series of three meetings in each of the three participating towns last week.

Chelsea community members initially participated in the pre-K to 12 study committee, but has since bowed out. Chelsea Public School Principal Mark Blount directed questions about consolidation to the Chelsea School Board, but confirmed that Chelsea is no longer considering a merger with Bethel, Royalton and Rochester.

According to draft minutes of the Dec. 5 pre-K to 8 subcommittee meeting, Chelsea, Tunbridge and Waits River, a union district that includes Corinth and Topsham and is part of the Orange East Supervisory Union, are in talks to consolidate. Strafford, another member of the White River Valley Supervisory Union, is following the discussion, but not interested in a merger, according to the minutes.

Two other members of the White River Valley Supervisory Union, Granville and Hancock, which do not currently operate schools and pay tuition for all students, are moving toward a merger. Other members of the White River Valley Supervisory Union — Strafford, Sharon and Stockbridge — are still exploring a wide variety of consolidation options and are not yet to the point where they are bringing a proposal to voters.

The minutes of the pre-K to 8 study committee also indicate that Chelsea has not yet decided whether to offer choice for high school as both Tunbridge and Waits River currently do.

“This is tough stuff,” Blount said. “As the school principal, I have to be concerned about the here and the now and make sure that the kids who are in our school, that we continue to serve their needs for as long as we are in our existing configuration. That’s a big focus of ours.”

Reached by phone last week, Chelsea School Board Chairman Joe Spinella said he did not have time to talk. Messages left for other board members were not returned by deadline.

Though there are rumblings about amending Act 46 in the state Legislature, committee members from Bethel, Royalton and Rochester said they would continue to abide by the law as written until it changes.

“I would hate to stop, hoping for change that never comes,” said committee chairwoman Lisa Floyd, of Bethel.

Committee members are set to meet in Bethel on Dec. 21 at 6 p.m. to pick a model to submit to the state Board of Education in February.

More information about consolidation plans for Bethel, Royalton and Rochester can be found online at wrvsu.org/wrvsu-pk-12-study-committee-onestopshop.


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

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