Rochester Nears Re-Vote On Tuesday

Front Page / Jun. 15, 2017 8:41am EDT

By Sandy Vondrasek

Rochester has plenty to think about before next Tuesday’s merger re-vote rolls around.

A moribund plan to merge school districts in Rochester, Bethel, and Royalton had a surprising revival Tuesday, when Royalton voters cast a stunning reversal of their April 11 rejection of the proposal. (See other article.)

Now the future of the three-town merger rests in squarely in the hands of Rochester voters, who have their own petitioned re-vote on the matter June 20.

Voters in both Bethel and Rochester had approved the three-town merger in April, and Bethel School Board member Lisa Floyd has said she has found that townspeople there still favor the plan.

If Rochester says yes this time, the merger is on track for a Muly 1 2018 launch. A yes vote will also secure for all three towns the tax-rate incentives of Act 46, as well as preserve for Rochester significant funding it now receives from the state via a small schools grant and the so-called “phantom student” provision.

If Rochester says no this time, the three-town plan is dead, with no further chances of a revival in the short term.

In the case of a no vote, the next step would be a vote, probably in August, on Rochester and Bethel’s “Plan B” for a two-town merger. That plan has been approved by both the PreK-12 study committee and the State Board of Education (SBE), and a vote on it must be held if the three-town plan goes down, state education officials advise.

In the meantime, other ideas are being floated in Rochester, and an “informal” group has begun meeting to study them. Options such as offering choice to older students, or joining the newly-merged district of Braintree, Brookfield, and Randolph have been mentioned.

Failure to approve a SBE-approved merger by November 30 would trigger the state stepping in to direct matters, though towns may have some time beyond then to propose “alternative structure” plans that don’t meet Act 46’s “preferred structure” ideals.

The Rochester School Board will hold two informational meetings in advance of polling on the petitioned revote Tuesday, June 20, 7 a.m.-7 p.m. at the town offices. (Voters will be handed two ballots that day, with the second one a request from the selectboard to bond for up to $500,000 to upgrade the public sewer system septic fields.) The first info session will be tonight, June 15, 7 p.m. at RHS. The second will be next Monday, June 19, 7 p.m., also at the high school.

Phantom Fallout?

More than Bethel or Royalton, Rochester faces what Supt. Bruce Labs once characterized as “severe” financial consequences for failure to join an Act-46 compliant merger by November 30.

That is due, in large part, because Rochester has benefited hugely from a “phantom student” provision that cushions schools from steep drops in per-pupil state revenue when enrollments drop quickly.

According to the merger plan presented to the SBE in February, Rochester has benefited from this program “more than almost any other district in the state.”

“In 2017, Rochester counted 32.73 ‘phantom students,’ 25% of its total,” the report continued.

Without the cushioning effect of those invisible students, the report stated, “Rochester’s cost-per-student would have jumped 43%, resulting in a sizable tax increase.”

As a pro-merger carrot, Act 46 has promised preservation of the hold-harmless formula only for those districts that form compliant mergers.

The merger proposal also included estimates of tax-rate impacts for the three towns under three scenarios— no merger, the three-town merger, or a “state-created merger.” (The report emphasized that the figures were “estimates and projections” and that actual rates would vary, depending on state policy decisions, changes in student count, and local budgets.)

“No merger” saw increases for all three towns over the next five years, with Rochester’s tax rates estimated to rise from the current $1.604 to $2.419 (about 81¢). The projected hike for Bethel was 23¢ and for Royalton was about 13¢.

Transportation

Although Rochester stands to benefit most in terms of school tax rates, in other matters, the proposed three-town merger plan is “a compromise for Rochester, much more so than for the other two towns,” according to resident Rob Gardner.

Transportation is one of those areas that would hit his town hardest, he noted, since the plan would send Rochester’s middle school students to Bethel and high-schoolers to Royalton. The students would spend some time, over the years, in Rochester at the outdoor education center to be established under the plan.

All that busing, Gardner said, will make Rochester “less attractive to young families.”

Exciting’ Plan

A strong supporter of the three-town plan is Rochester resident Andy West, who teaches in Bethel and who is a member of the study committee that created the merger plan.

The plan, he acknowledged, does send the town’s older students out of town—but they would all go to the same location, where a wider-community connection can be nurtured.

West said he’s seen such a connection build between Rochester and Bethel, as they joined forces to field “Whitchester” athletic teams, due to shrinking student numbers at the separate schools.

West worries, he said, that high school choice—one option being bandied about—would erode a sense of cohesion, as students in a given class head off to different schools.

In his work with student discussion groups, West said, he found that students may not always favor this particular merger, but they do consistently say they “just want more kids,” and more options for academics and athletics.

West said he also supports the merger plan “because I think it is something genuinely exciting.”

Unlike most mergers approved in the state, this plan proposes major changes in how education will be delivered to students, he said.

“There is risk involved; it’s a gamble,” he conceded, “but to me, it’s worth it.”

West volunteered that the merger question is also a personal one for him. His son is in 7th grade, and the only “known” about his high school years, at this point, is that he will have “something different” than what is available now.

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