While many eyes were on Statehouse negotiations Tuesday in advance of the veto session, residents came out to vote on merger proposals in Montpelier and six other districts.
Montpelier voters decided to welcome Roxbury’s middle and high school students in the coming years with a vote of 770-518 in favor of combining their districts. Roxbury voters also approved of the plan, voting 168-65 to keep their pre-K-through-4 students in town and send grades five through 12 to Montpelier.
Roxbury currently tuitions its high-schoolers, and most choose U-32 in East Montpelier, so this will help Montpelier High School expand its student rolls and fill some unused seats.
Jon Guiffre, a Roxbury School Board member, said he was excited about the outcome and the turnout. “I think it is a good thing for both communities for their families and their kids,” he said, adding that the large number approving the merger sends a strong message of support.
Voters in Cabot and Danville shot down a merger plan with Twinfield Union School, which serves Plainfield and Marshfield. That arrangement would have closed Cabot’s high school and sent students to either of the other two high schools.
Twinfield voters were hoping for the merger, voting 160-103 in favor. Danville’s no vote was more unexpected, 239-112. The measure failed in Cabot by a vote of 357-163.
In a revote in Rochester, residents changed course from their earlier decision to merge middle and high schools with Bethel and Royalton. Tuesday’s result was 236-144 against it.
That was part of a broader proposal involving seven school districts, which had been doomed in April when Royalton opted against merging. However, residents there had a revote just weeks ago and said yes, resuscitating the possibility until Rochester voters pulled the plug Tuesday.
Since the April votes, the Legislature passed a bill that may allow the other four towns to find a way to merge and comply with Act 46.
Frank Russell, a Rochester School Board and Act 46 study group member, said he thinks some people felt Royalton was too far away, some want school choice, and some want to wait and see what would happen with an alternative plan between Bethel and Rochester.
Russell said he had hoped for the unification with Royalton and Bethel and had visions of Rochester becoming a magnet middle and high school over time because of its outdoor program, theater, and wood and metalworking shops. “I was really disappointed in the vote,” he said.
Of the 144 who voted for the proposal, Russell said they were likely property owners who didn’t relish a projected hike in their tax bills.
Rochester School Board member Jessica Arsenault said the newly passed legislation, Act 49, was part of the reason Rochester residents changed their vote. The new law extended Act 46 deadlines and added new options.
The other part? It could be that Rochester was reacting to Royalton’s rejection in April. “Perhaps the initial, large no in Royalton created some reluctance,” Arsenault said.
Rochester and Bethel put together a plan B merger between their two school districts after Royalton’s initial rejection. They will vote on it later. If Rochester doesn’t vote yes on plan B, it may still end up closing its high school.
The second merger option has students studying three days in Bethel and two days at Rochester.
“The committee agreed that we don’t have enough middle schoolers for either school to have their seventh- and eighth-graders stay in their home communities without students from the other town,” said Act 46 study group member Lisa Floyd, from Bethel. “So we worked out a plan that is flexible and would bring those groups together.”
Plan B would still garner savings of around $180,000, she said. There would be some increase in opportunity for the small student body, and, according to Floyd, it would move both communities toward school choice or designation.
What it won’t do is keep the schools at the heart of the community, Floyd added. The plan with Royalton would have kept the elementary schools in all three towns.
Rochester’s choice Tuesday puts Royalton in a holding pattern. Geo Honigford, a member of the Royalton School Board who was also involved in the Act 46 group, said he was disappointed. “I wish we would be done and they would be entering into a union with us. Where we go from here is uncertain,” he said.
Russell said he is glad lawmakers passed Act 49 because it opens up some more merger possibilities.
“There is a community group in Rochester looking at options such as pre-K to six, pre-K to eight, and the Bethel option,” he said. “We have ideas and lines going out just in case” the vote on plan B fails. Act 49 provides more options, “but the time frame is severe — Nov. 30 is not a lot of time,” Russell said.
All Act 46 votes have to be completed by Nov. 30.