It’s a game of musical chairs involving four tiny Vermont high schools — so musical, in fact, it even involves school band members.
On the dance bill are high schools in Bethel, Rochester and Royalton. And the question, animated by Vermont’s Act 46 law calling for unifying small school districts, is which might end up merging with which.
Up for a vote in April was a merger between Royalton, Bethel and Rochester. Royalton voters rejected it, then asked for a revote in May. By June, Royalton wanted back in and Rochester wanted out. Fast-forward to August, and this week the State Board of Education approved a plan for a merger between Bethel and Royalton.
In the April vote, Chelsea voted to close its high school, join with Tunbridge and tuition both towns’ students to other high schools. Tunbridge has since voted against merging, and the situation is in flux. Hancock and Granville voted to merge in April, and they are still game but are waiting for things to sugar out in the region.
After Royalton first said no to unification, Bethel and Rochester banded together and brought a proposal to the State Board in May, known as Plan B, with the hope of getting a merger in before a June 30, deadline that the Legislature recently changed to Nov. 30. Since then, interest in Plan B in both Rochester and Bethel has waned. Rochester is thinking about school choice and courting Stockbridge, while Bethel residents longed for the original plan linking the three towns.
Bethel School Board member and Act 46 study panel chair Lisa Floyd told the state board the proposal to form the White River Unified District between Royalton and Bethel is basically the same plan put forward in February that was praised by Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe in an op-ed last April.
“A lot of the challenges presented earlier, when Rochester was in the mix or when Chelsea was in the mix have gone away,” Floyd said, adding that there is a shorter distance between Royalton and Bethel. “In fact, right now, Royalton school buses turn around in the Bethel school parking lot. It makes a lot of sense to work together.”
The elementary students will stay in Royalton and Bethel for grades pre-K-5, then attend grades 6-8 at Bethel’s location and high school in South Royalton. In the original proposal, Rochester would have been the site of an outdoor environmental learning program. Both Bethel and Royalton residents didn’t want to lose that element; the new plan includes an experiential learning program that will be driven by student interests and won’t be tied to a single location.
South Royalton has a river where water environment programs can be explored, Bethel has a high and low ropes course, and Johnson State College along with Castleton University have offered preservice teachers to help provide instruction for this program, according to Floyd.
“People want to continue to have a community built around our schools and I think this plan allows for that to happen,” Floyd said. “It reduced costs, not as dramatically as the first plan did, but more than the second plan reduced costs [Plan B], there will be more peers for students to work with and interact with and there will be efficiencies within this plan,” she added.
Royalton and Bethel have seen a reduction in class sizes over the last few years. John Olmstead, who was representing Royalton, told the state board that 35 classes are expected to have seven or fewer students next year in Royalton, “and there were no trumpets in band last year.”
State Board Chair Krista Huling confirmed that Bethel has some trumpet players before approving the new unification plan.
The proposal expects student enrollment to grow beyond 800 for the White River Unified Union.
If Bethel and Royalton merge and offer a hands-on learning program, they could become a magnet in the region, according to Steve Dale, the facilitator for the areas Act 46 study committee.
“There is already choice in many other towns, enrollment could substantially increase beyond 800,” Dale said.
Superintendent Bruce Labs said there are about 620 resident pupils and tuition students come in from Sharon and Tunbridge. “We know the opportunity that we create can only be enhanced by those kids and we really need them to give all the kids a good program. We think if we build it they will come, especially with the experiential program.”
The board approved the new unification plan for Royalton and Bethel and it can now be brought to the voters in October.
“I am pleased that Bethel wants to move forward,” said Holcombe, “the opportunity at Royalton and Bethel will create robust new programs. This is a really interesting case study in how to make sure kids have good access to academic opportunity.”