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Editorial: Royalton Alone

Published: 4/18/2017 8:58:41 PM
Modified: 4/18/2017 9:00:09 PM

The chief irony of Act 46, Vermont’s school consolidation law, is that a measure intended to promote unity at times ends up sowing division.

Just last week, a regional school district realignment in the White River Valley was scuttled when voters in Royalton overwhelmingly rejected a merger with Bethel and Rochester. That vote also doomed the related consolidation plans of Granville, Hancock, Chelsea and Tunbridge.

As staff writer Matt Hongoltz-Hetling reported on Sunday, bitter recriminations followed the failure of the plan, with four Royalton members of an Act 46 Study Committee bearing the brunt. They had voted to approve the plan back in January, but declined to support it at a public gathering ahead of last Tuesday’s voting. This led the town’s fifth committee member, Geo Honigford, to denounce their reversal as “unconscionable.” Representatives from other towns felt equally betrayed.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is perhaps possible to discern why what appeared to be a promising union to voters in Bethel and Rochester struck their counterparts in Royalton as a marriage of inconvenience at best and a shotgun wedding at worst. Unlike in the other two towns, there was little financial incentive for Royalton to merge, given that school taxes were projected to rise slightly there. And under the plan, youngsters in grades 6-8 in the merged district would have attended a middle school in Bethel and high school students would have come to Royalton. As a result, Royalton’s middle-schoolers would have been bused to Bethel instead of being educated in town as at present. These factors, among others, apparently outweighed in the minds of Royalton voters a long list of educational benefits touted by proponents of consolidation, such as more Advanced Placement offerings and enhanced programs in engineering, medical science and computer science at the high school.

And, as one opponent of the consolidation plan told Hongoltz-Hetling, some residents simply wanted to keep their own 380-student, pre-K-12 district intact in a reassertion of local control. Of course, that train left the station long ago — 20 years ago to be exact, when the Vermont Supreme Court in the Brigham case enunciated the constitutional right of all Vermont students to equal educational opportunity. The revolution in school finance that followed shifted the responsibility of paying for schools, and the power that goes along with it, to the state. The most recent manifestation of this shift in responsibility is Act 46, which, in the face of declining school enrollments, is pushing school districts around the state to form larger units in the interest of providing more educational opportunity at lower cost. No one knows exactly how this will all work out, but it represents the Legislature’s latest effort to address per-pupil spending that has been among the highest in the nation.

It’s unclear where the seven White River Valley towns go from here, or even whether there is sufficient time to cobble together alternate plans to meet a July deadline for approval by both the state of Vermont and local voters. Not doing so could mean ceding the decision to the state Board of Education, which is empowered to impose consolidation plans on districts that fail to adopt them. That is unlikely to make Royalton voters any happier than the plan they rejected.

The town could also seek a waiver from Act 46’s requirements, which appears equally unlikely, or hope that the Legislature will approve proposed changes to the law that are said to provide more “flexibility.” That in itself could be a serious misstep on the part of lawmakers, given that as of March, 104 school districts serving 60 percent of Vermont students had merged into larger units under the current provisions. Some of those districts, at least, might be incensed that they followed the law’s dictates in a timely fashion, while holdouts got a better deal.

One thing that does appear clear is that having refused to be stampeded into an arrangement it did not care for, Royalton has taken a leap into the unknown. Unfortunately, its neighbors were dragged along.

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