White River Valley school district merger fails

A truck parked on the edge of the South Royalton town green sports a sign urging voters to reject a school merger proposal. Voters did just that on Tuesday. Photo by Tiffany Danitz Pache/VTDigger

South Royalton voters Tuesday rejected a multi-town school district merger.

Voters in the other six White River Valley towns supported unification, but because the merger vote failed in South Royalton, the district consolidation proposal can’t move forward.

The White River Valley Supervisory Union towns would have combined seven out of 10 separate districts, each with its own board, into three school districts with three school boards.

In South Royalton, the merger was rejected in a 206 to 462 vote. Bethel and Rochester voters approved the plan 320 to 67 and 213 to 178 respectively. Granville voted 23 to 3, and Hancock 35 to 4, Tunbridge 151 to 109 and Chelsea 173 to 78. Three other towns in the supervisory union — Strafford, Sharon and Stockbridge — are not considering merger plans.

Signs lining the roads in South Royalton suggested that residents would lose their school if they voted for the district consolidation plan.

Yuliya Ballou stood outside the South Royalton high school Tuesday campaigning against the merger. “I voted no and advocated for no as well, all day long.”

Todd Sears, a member of the study committee from Bethel, said the overwhelming no vote from Royalton sent a clear message. “They do not want change. I respect it, but I’m not happy about it,” he said.

South Royalton School merger 2

A sign urging a yes vote for a school consolidation plan near South Royalton High School, where voters Tuesday rejected the measure. Photo by Tiffany Danitz Pache/VTDigger

School boards in Bethel and Rochester school boards called emergency meetings this week figure out how to make a June 30 deadline for a merger revote that could enable towns to qualify for state tax breaks and school grant protections.

The merger structure is known as a side-by-side. Royalton, Rochester and Bethel would be one district. The other two districts are Granville and Hancock, and Tunbridge and Chelsea.

Royalton, Rochester and Bethel all operate pre-kindergarten through grade 12 schools but enrollments have been declining and students say they want more class options, sports and clubs.

The Act 46 study group’s proposal, approved by the State Board of Education, would have let each town keep their elementary schools. Older students would attend middle school at Bethel’s building and high schoolers would go to the South Royalton campus. Rochester’s school abuts Green Mountain National Forest so the plan was to turn the high school wing of the K-12 building into an environmental and experiential learning center that offered environmental management, tourism and humanities courses for students across the new district.

The Rochester School had 128 students in K-12 last year with just 30 students in the high school and only seven students in ninth grade and seven students in 10th grade. Bethel has 84 students in the high school and Royalton has 126 in grades 9-12.

The graduating classes at the schools are sometimes in the single digits.

“There comes a time when small is just too small,” said Andy West, a study committee member from Rochester.

Sears said that the schools are very limited in the courses they can offer. If they merged they would have been able to “double the amount of offerings.”

In Bethel Tuesday, Craig Wortman said he voted yes because it was better for the kids.

“If a kid is average or above average forget it — there are no options because there are not enough kids,” he said.

Some people were opposed to adding travel time to a student’s commute, according to Wortman.

“To me it was simple. Each town still has the little kids in town,” he said.

Dorothy Rikert, a member of the South Royalton school board, said that she opposed the plan because there weren’t enough benefits for her town. Rikert said they would be picking up a “big portion of the bill for it” and wouldn’t have enough representation on the unified school board.

The merger would have increased Royalton taxpayers’ property bills by $12 a year over four years for a home worth $200,000. For a property of the same value, Bethel taxpayers would have saved around $2,000 over four years and Rochester residents would save nearly $5,000, according to study committee reports.

The proposal set up a nine-member unified union school board with three representatives from each town. Each board member would be elected by all three communities.

Andrew Jones, of Royalton, who voted yes, said the merged district could attract more tuition students in nearby communities.

“Right now we have no tuition students, but if we offer more [courses] then more will come,” Jones said.

Another Royalton resident who voted for the merger, John Damville, said the plan was a win-win and would give students more social opportunities. “We get to keep the elementary school and the high school. Joining with our neighbors will be great,” he said.

Geo Honigford, a member of the study committee from Royalton, said there was a group of people who were against the plan from the start. About a week ago, this group changed their messaging and started saying they were pro-consolidation, but against this specific plan, he said.

Rikert didn’t think the proposal was creative enough. She would like to see the 10 towns come back to the table and talk about how to meet the goals of Act 46 in a creative way.

“I want the best possible consolidation for the future. If we come up with a creative model working with the communities around us by thinking outside the box we can come up with a model that complies with the goals of Act 46,” Rikert said.

The study committee exhausted all possible options over the 10 months they met, said Honigford.

“We have looked at every permutation of schools, communities, people, students and there is no other plan,” he said. “I don’t know what plan they could come up with other than the one we did and it took us a year to get to that plan. In my estimation, it was a brilliant tactic to divert a percentage of people away, to say, ‘there is something else coming, let’s wait and see what it looks like.’”

Honigford, Sears and other study committee members said they are proud of the proposal.

On March 10, Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe wrote to Honigford and said that because of the “extremely small size” of each of the district’s schools it would be hard for them to convince her and the state board that they can meet the goals of Act 46 that include giving students opportunity, equity, efficiency and quality.

“It is difficult to imagine how any of these — on its own — will be considered a ‘sustainable governance structure’ that is able to meet or exceed each of the education and fiscal goals outlined in Act 46,” she wrote.

If Royalton doesn’t participate in a new merger proposal, the town won’t be eligible for state tax incentives and local taxes will go up 20 cents per $100 of assessed value in the first year. For a $200,000 house that is a $1,300 increase over a three-year period, according to Honigford.

Sears said they need to find a way forward, whether it is just two towns or three, and they need to do so using reason, not fear and emotion which he believed played a role in yesterday’s vote in Royalton.

“At the end of the day, if you are looking at what is right for the kids, I don’t see how voting no is going to help with that. The plan that we had would have drastically improved the plan for all of these kids so I’m very disappointed in their (Royalton) vote,” Sears said.

Steve Dale, the study committee’s consultant, said that the group worked really hard on the merger and it’s disappointing all three proposals are at risk because of the outcome in Royalton.

“Obviously, the benefits of any particular proposal will affect different towns differently, but it is important that we, as Vermonters, think of what is in the best interest of all students,” Dale said.

Correction: The White River Valley Supervisory Union towns would have combined seven, not 10 districts.

Tiffany Danitz Pache

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