White River Valley Supervisory Union Has Reorganization Plan

  • Chelsea Elementary School first graders Evelyn Button, 7, middle, and Sarah Marshia, 6, right, pass eighth grader Olivia Sanford, 14, left, in the hallway on their way back to art class with print-outs from the computer lab in Chelsea, Vt. Wednesday, April 27, 2016. The future of the kindergarten through twelfth grade school of 170 students is uncertain as the town discusses its options under the Act 46 school legislation. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/31/2017 1:08:06 AM
Modified: 1/31/2017 10:07:14 AM

South Royalton — School district officials within the White River Valley Supervisory Union took a major step toward complying with Act 46 on Monday night by settling on a vision that would combine seven existing school districts into three unified school districts while reorganizing in a way that would, among other changes, close Chelsea’s high school in favor of tuitioning out students in grades 9-12.

Roughly 50 residents attended the meeting, during which three study committees with members from 10 towns voted to send the proposals to the State Board of Education and, eventually, the voting public, with a possible implementation date of July 1, 2018.

If the recommendations are approved, Chelsea would merge with Tunbridge to form the First Branch Unified School District, educating students from PreK-8. Instead of attending high school in Chelsea, as they currently do, students in grades 9-12 would get school choice.

“Closing a high school after 100 years is a difficult decision,” the study committee wrote in its report, which then noted that the move was being recommended in part because of the shrinking student population, which was 58 students last year. “These small numbers meant that offerings were limited and the cost per student was relatively high. The proposed plan for high school education addresses both concerns.”

Though the proposal was mum on where a middle school for that district would be, several members said the likely location would be Chelsea, which has facilities and infrastructure in place at the existing school.

In a sign of the fluidity of the situation, the Chelsea School Board, led by Chairman Joe Spinella, decided during its final review of the proposal to change the manner by which the new school board members would be elected, so that voters throughout the district would cast votes for each of six school board members. They also seriously considered, but rejected, the idea of formalizing the location of the middle school.

A study committee made up of voting members from Sharon, Stockbridge, Strafford and Tunbridge approved the changes nearly unanimously, with one abstention from Strafford.

In a second proposal, Bethel, Rochester and Royalton would merge to form the PreK-12 White RIver Unified School District, in which each of the three towns will continue to operate PreK-5 elementary schools, while grades 6-8 would come together in a middle school in Bethel.

The proposal was approved unanimously by a study committee made up of 15 representatives from Bethel, Chelsea, Rochester and Royalton, though they first amended the language to more clearly define a proposed Center for Environmental and Experiential Learning in Rochester, which will teach a range of programs to high schoolers, including environmental resource management, and travel and tourism. Grades 9-12 will attend high school in South Royalton, which would have about 60 students in each graduating class.

“Part of the reason we chose South Royalton is that it is the largest building and it has the most capacity,” said Lisa Floyd, of Bethel, chairwoman of the study committee that came up with the plan.

“... We’re hoping to create programs that are really attractive to people and this building gives us the capacity to accept as many students as we can,” she said.

Floyd said the plan would give an opportunity for a richer curriculum and lower costs, thereby easing the tax burden, and said committee members were mindful of potential negatives, like increased busing times.

“We know that we have a very large district geography,” Floyd said. “That’s not to our advantage. ... We have agreed from the beginning that we want to include late buses. ... We want to create as much equity as possible where transportation is involved.”

Granville and Hancock would form the PreK-12 non-operating Granville-Hancock Unified School District, the simplest of the three proposals and one that was approved unanimously with little discussion.

Three other towns in the union — Sharon, Strafford and Stockbridge — would seek to fit into the White River Valley Supervisory Union as part of a yet-to-be-defined alternative structure.

“These three districts, in conjunction with the Supervisory Union, will have to make the case of how they can meet the goals of Act 46 without unification,” said Steve Dale, an educational consultant who was hired with a state merger study grant to help shepherd the districts through the process.

Dale said one reason for voters to approve the current plan is an Act 46 deadline that offers tax savings to districts that comply by this summer.

“If (the White River Unified District plan) doesn’t pass in all three towns, all sorts of things could happen. There could be revotes. You could rethink the plan and come up with a different version of the plan. If there’s no plan approved by July 1, then there are no financial incentives,” Dale said.

In addition to losing out on those tax incentives, districts that don’t submit a voter-approved plan to the state by November risk being forced to abide by a compliance plan crafted by the state.

Sharon and Stockbridge explored merging into a PreK-6 district, but school boards from districts in those towns ultimately decided that merging could open the door to the closing of one of their schools, in which case students in that town would need to be bused to the other.

“The problem is, downtown Stockbridge is 20 miles from downtown Sharon,” Dale said.

Strafford’s board declined a merger because of its relationship with the Thetford Academy, which is its primary high school.

The proposals are the end result of more than a year of study committee meetings that sought to bring the districts into compliance with Act 46, an education reform law that seeks to bend the curve on education costs and react to shrinking student populations by merging districts into larger administrative units.

They are required to submit a proposal to the state Board of Education by Nov. 30 of this year.

The plans will now be sent to the State Board of Education for a Feb. 21 vote, and to voters in the various towns for an April 11 vote.

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

Sign up for our free email updates
Valley News Daily Headlines
Valley News Contests and Promotions
Valley News Extra Time
Valley News Breaking News

Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784


© 2021 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy