Royalton School Bd. Examines Revote


Front Page / Apr. 20, 2017 10:30am EDT

Bethel, Rochester Weigh Options
By Dylan Kelley

Chad Couture (upper left) listens apprehensively alongside other Royalton residents as the School Board discusses a possible Act 46 revote. (Herald / Dylan Kelley) Chad Couture (upper left) listens apprehensively alongside other Royalton residents as the School Board discusses a possible Act 46 revote. (Herald / Dylan Kelley) School boards for Bethel and Royalton gathered at Whitcomb High School Tuesday night before about a dozen members of both communities to continue discussions on potential next steps, after Royalton’s rejection of a district consolidation plan halted merger hopes in another six towns last week.

For members of the Royalton school board, those next steps may be an effort to gather enough signatures to hold a revote in time for Act 46’s June 30 deadline.

The Royalton board’s decision to pursue an eventual revote came near the end of a somber question-and-answer period with constituents following a brief joint meeting with the Bethel school board.

To trigger a revote, the board would need to gather signatures representing 5% of the registered voters. In this case, 100 signatures are needed. “We decided as a group, the community and board together … that we would start a petition and we would get as many signatures as we could,” said Christine Hudson, who chaired the Tuesday night meeting.

“Some people want to get up to 500 signatures to show that we really do want to work with Rochester and Bethel,” said Hudson, who was careful to say that the completed petition would only be presented if Bethel and Rochester were still interested in working with Royalton.

“We don’t want to put Rochester or Bethel in a position where they’re not going to be able to do anything,” she said. “We respect that Bethel and Rochester need to decide how they’re going to move forward.”

“It’s a steep hill to climb,” said White River Valley Superintendent Bruce Labs, who spent much of the evening alternately walking through Whitcomb’s hallways from one school board meeting to the other. In order for the Bethel-Rochester- Royalton proposal to move forward, it must be approved by at least two-thirds the number of the original Royalton voters who cast ballots on April 11. In this case, the Royalton school board must wrangle at least 438 affirmative votes (more than twice as many as on April 11) to approve the merger.

“We’re in [between] a rock and a hard place,” said David Ainsworth, who represents the Windsor-Orange 1 District. Leaving the meeting in order to be ready for early-morning chores on his Royalton dairy farm, Ainsworth left with a promise to investigate the possibility of the legislature taking action to provide additional flexibility to Act 46 through Senate bill 122 (S.122).

That bill, which is currently being addressed in the House Education Committee, would allow for towns that are struggling to meet Act 46 requirements to adopt alternative structures, while also providing additional time to implement those plans.

Regardless of whether S.122 makes it to the floor of the legislature, Ainsworth remains confident that a local solution is still salvageable.

“I hope we can get this through,” he said as he reflected on the possibility of a revote. “We gotta have a revote sometime, I’m just hoping we can get the other two towns in on this because we can’t do it individually, any one of these towns. I’m hoping that will work and we can keep going forward.”

Communication, Trust

For Christine Hudson, who chaired the Tuesday night Royalton school board meeting, simply implementing a revote is only half the battle. Other challenges include bridging the communication divide within Royalton and Bethel school leadership and beginning the slow process of rebuilding trust with neighboring communities.

“I think we should’ve communicated early on what this vote was about,” said Hudson over the phone on Wednesday afternoon. “Now, I feel like we should’ve held more community meetings in Royalton… to get people to understand what this vote was about.”

Effective communication was high on Rep. Ainsworth’s list of priorities as well, as he repeatedly reminded the board that listening to the constituents is critical to understanding last week’s vote.

“There was a breakdown in our communications in our town,” said Ainsworth. “There’s no doubt about that,” he said.

“I think this is a wake up call for the citizens of Royalton,” said resident and former school board member Laurie Smith, referencing the immense complexity of Act 46 and Vermont education law overall.

“We have to make sure that our community is understanding what’s happening with our school. We have to have a real back-and-forth in terms of listening to people’s concerns and addressing them.” said Smith.

Other Complexities

The greatest concern among those present at the start of the evening was an upcoming May 17 meeting of the state Board of Education, which must approve any new merger proposals before towns are eligible to vote on them. Less than a month away, that board meeting also requires that a proposal from each town be submitted for review about a week in advance, leaving a scant two-week window for Bethel and Rochester to complete a two-town plan.

“How can we put together a formal proposal in the depths of this process?” asked an exasperated Frank Russell, who serves as vice chair of the Rochester school board. Russell joined others from Bethel and Rochester who expressed concern that an effort to revive the three-town PreK- 12 merger is unfeasible in the limited time before June 30.

“I just don’t have faith that we’re going to move in a positive direction given the timeline we’re faced with,” said Bethel school board vice chair Lisa Floyd, when asked about the possibility of reviving the merger during the early stages of the meeting.

Longtime Royalton resident Chad Couture, who had voted “No” last week, remained optimistic and harbored no ill feelings toward his neighboring communities.

“I think something is hopefully going to work. Hopefully, with some understanding and maybe some working together,” said Couture. “I grew up in this town… I’ve always been in this community,” he said. “I just hope that Rochester and Bethel don’t come to the conclusion that they’re hated by Royalton residents,” he said.

This mea culpa perspective appears to extend to the Royalton school board as well.

“South Royalton cares about the residents of Rochester and Bethel, and we care about their students, and we care about their community,” said board chair Hudson in a phone interview Wednesday evening. “Even though I know their feelings are hurt, I just want them to know that we really do care about them,” she said.

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