(This story is by Matt Hongoltz-Hetling of the Valley News, in which it first appeared Aug. 8, 2017.)
SOUTH ROYALTON — School officials have hammered out the details of a plan to merge the Bethel and Royalton school districts and have set an October date for a vote to form the White River Unified District in the two towns.
School board members say the plan, which would send about 130 middle school students to Bethel and about 170 high school students to Royalton, is the last, best option for residents to comply with Act 46, the 2015 consolidation law that holds schools to strict new standards on quality, equitability and cost-efficiency.
“Merging on our own terms makes it so that the state won’t define our structure,” said Bethel School Board Chairwoman Lisa Floyd, referring to the Nov. 30 deadline after which Act 46 charges the State Board of Education with imposing a compliant structure on slow-to-act districts. “We’re protected from that.”
Scott Putney, a school choice advocate from Bethel who has grandchildren in the school system, said he doesn’t think the school board gave choice enough consideration.
“It seems to me we’re just kicking the can down the road,” said Putney, who said the merger won’t really address the long-term problem of a dwindling student population. “I think Bethel is well-suited for choice with Randolph 8 miles to the north, and South Royalton 8 miles to the south.”
Floyd said that while she and other school board members have heard the calls for choice, she thinks it’s a minority position in the town, which voted 320-67 in April in favor of a now-defunct three-town merger proposal with Rochester and Royalton.
“Our board has kept an open mind about that, but what I’m hearing from my community is that while there are a few people who think that choice would be the best direction to go, there are more people who would like us to merge with Royalton,” Floyd said.
Putney said the way the state framed the discussion tilted local public opinion away from choice as a viable option. He’s not happy about that, he said, but he conceded that it may be too late now to formally examine the impact choice would have in Bethel before the deadline, which also carries with it the risk of financial penalties from the state.
“If we don’t vote for (the merger) we lose the money and we’re stuck with South Royalton if the state decides that’s where we’re going,” he said.
Still, Putney said, voting in favor of the merger — currently scheduled to come before voters Oct. 24 — will be hard.
“I haven’t made a decision,” he said. “They’re going to have to really work hard to get me to vote for it.”
During a Monday night meeting of the Act 46 study committee for Bethel and Royalton, the 10 members voted unanimously to approve the articles of agreement for the proposed district. One change during that meeting was to mandate the inclusion of an outdoor experiential learning program.
“We’ve made a commitment to the program,” said Christine Hudson, chairwoman of the Royalton School Board. “We wanted to say that it’s important to us.”
Another key issue under discussion was how to structure the new school board of the proposed district — a nine-member majority agreed to a six-member board made up of three residents from each town. Voters from both towns will cast ballots for all six positions.
Hudson said the structure has the advantage of strengthening relationships between the two communities, and also prevents the possibility that one of the two towns would eventually gain a 4-3 majority, as would be the case on a board based on proportional representation.
The plan will be presented to the State Board of Education for approval Aug. 30, after which it would go to voters.
Projections show that the budget of the merged district will be less than the combined budgets of the current school districts by about $137,000, or about 1.5 percent. In the 2018-19 school year, the first year the proposed district would operate, projections show that the education property tax rate would be $1.35 per $1,000 of assessed property value in both towns of a unified district. If the districts were to remain in their current configuration, the rate would be $1.47 in Royalton and $1.73 in Bethel.
Those numbers could change significantly, depending on how many tuition students come to the district from outside the two towns — the projections assume the districts would attract twice as many tuition students by merging.
“We want to build a school that people will want to come to,” said Hudson.
Details on exact staffing changes, such as whether each school will have a principal and a vice principal, have yet to be determined, though projections anticipate a reduction of roughly six staff.
Floyd said that, at the same time, the larger student base would allow the district to expand its course offerings with classes such as AP physics.
Elsewhere in the White River Valley Supervisory Union, Superintendent Bruce Labs said there is still uncertainty about whether other proposed two-district pairings will come to fruition.
One would be a pre-K-to-eight district merger between Tunbridge and Chelsea. Tunbridge voters approved the idea in April, then reversed themselves in June.
The school boards of Rochester and Stockbridge also have been discussing the possibility of forming a pre-K-to-six district that would have choice for older students.