Towns eye possible path out of district merger quandary

Members of the Act 46 study committee from Royalton, Bethel and Rochester will meet Thursday to decide whether to use an escape clause in their original merger agreement as a way out of the difficult situation that a series of votes has put them in.

The move would require yet another vote in all three towns, but then Bethel and Royalton could unite and Rochester could join them or pursue another merger and keep its small-school grant.

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Voters enter Bethel Elementary School. File photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger
The original proposal was to merge all three school districts into one offering pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. A clause was written into the articles of agreement in case Rochester voters rejected the plan — as they recently did in a reconsideration of their earlier approval.

A committee member said they’ve received official word that the agreement’s wording allows the towns to reactivate the proposal but with Rochester as an optional member of the new district, rather than a necessary one.

All three towns would have to vote again, and some worry about voter fatigue since both Royalton and Rochester have had two votes on the issue in three months.

Royalton voters rejected the original proposal in April but approved it June 20 after residents petitioned for a revote.

Lisa Floyd, a member of the Act 46 study committee from Bethel, said the group needs to meet to find out what is happening in the other towns to get a clear sense of how to move forward. But, she said, the group’s attorney Steve Stitzel and facilitator Stephen Dale, along with Donna Russo-Savage of the Agency of Education, said the three towns could call for another vote because of the clause in their articles of agreement. Those votes would allow a Royalton-Bethel merger to go forward with or without Rochester.

“If Rochester votes it down, it still leaves the opportunity for us to continue down the (original) path, which many people in my community feel pretty positive about and we know Royalton voted yes a couple weeks ago,” Floyd said.

That plan would have kept the elementary schools in each town. Middle school students would attend Bethel, and high schoolers would go to Royalton. Rochester would have run an environmental studies program for interested high schoolers in the new district.

“Rochester had the most misgivings throughout the process,” said Floyd. “Geographically they are in a really tough spot both literally and metaphorically. They are surrounded by communities that have moved to school choice, either for all grades, or seven-12.”

Some in Rochester are pushing for high school choice and possibly middle school choice. They supported saying no to the original plan as well as rejecting a plan B merger with only Bethel.

Study group members, unsure what would happen with the revotes, got the State Board of Education’s approval for plan B. It would allow Rochester and Bethel to unite middle and high schoolers. The state approved it with the understanding it was a contingency plan in case Royalton voters rejected the three-town plan a second time.

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A sign urges a yes vote for a school consolidation plan near South Royalton High School during an April vote in Royalton. File photo by Tiffany Danitz Pache/VTDigger
If the study committee meets and decides to do nothing, then Rochester and Bethel voters will have to vote on plan B, and neither town can pursue other options until then. Frank Russell, an Act 46 study committee member from Rochester, said he doesn’t expect that vote to happen until late summer.

However, because of the escape clause in the original agreement, all three towns can move forward and plan B would go away. Rochester would be free to pursue other options, including school choice and merging with another town such as Stockbridge.

White River Valley Supervisory Union Superintendent Bruce Labs said if Rochester doesn’t want to join Bethel and Royalton, the town will face a time crunch for a new plan.

“They need to come up with something soon because the deadline is approaching in late November,” Labs said. All mergers have to be voted on by Nov. 20.

Floyd hopes Rochester voters might take another look at the original plan and reviving the environmental program idea. “That was their baby, and we were really excited about it and still are,” she said. “If we move forward without Rochester we won’t have that resource. They are still an important part of the process, if they want to be in it.”

Floyd said she, for one, is concerned about voter fatigue on the issue.

But she expressed optimism too, saying that “if we can continue to work in the best interest of our kids we are going to be OK.”

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Tiffany Danitz Pache

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