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Front Page / Jul. 13, 2017 9:56am EDT

Four Towns To Start Over on Act 46
By Brianna Hillier and Sandy Vondrasek

The school districts of the White River Valley Supervisory Union that have been working for a year on merger plans agreed last Thursday to start anew.

By the end of a two-hour meeting in Bethel on July 5, the PreK-12 Study Committee agreed it was time to dissolve the year-old committee, comprising Chelsea, Bethel, Rochester, and Royalton, thereby freeing these towns to come up with new merger proposals.

The decision to start over comes after efforts to establish a complex arrangement of “side-by-side” districts in the WRVSU foundered, after negative votes in some of the towns.

The study committee voted unanimously last week to ask the State Board of Education (BOE) to rescind a proposed “Plan B” that would have merged Bethel and Rochester. Lisa Floyd, chair of the study committee, explained this week that Plan B was created as a backup for Bethel and Rochester to merge, after Royalton voted down the three-town Model 1 merger plan on April 11. That plan would have created a single high school for the three towns. However, after legislation extended the Act 46 deadline to November 30, Plan B lost its urgency and appeal.

In a split vote of 8-4, the PreK- 12 Study Committee also agreed, essentially, to abandon the original Model 1 plan to merge Bethel, Royalton, and Rochester. That step leaves these towns free to develop new plans.

Hitting this reset button will also require other towns in the WRVSU— Hancock, Granville, and Tunbridge, in particular—to reconsider their merger options.

It was pointed out at last week’s meeting that the state funds to help study committees develop merger plans are no longer available. And, it didn’t have to be stated that the pressure to act without delay is high, since Act 46 deadlines are once again just months away.

Discussion at last week’s meeting indicated that Bethel and Royalton will now develop a modified version of Model 1 to fit the needs of both communities, while Rochester will continue to explore new options separate from the original study committee.

Chelsea is also heading back to the table. Its board has recently been contacted by board members from both Royalton and Waits River about developing possible merger plans.

Bethel and Royalton will have the advantage of being able to build on what has already been done, by modifying the original, three-town merger plan. Their goal is to place the revised plan before voters by the November 30 deadline of Act 46. If voters in each town approve this plan, the new district could begin operations in 2018.

Crisis in Rochester?

Next steps for Rochester and Chelsea are far less certain, and both towns face pressures in terms of dropping high school student numbers, and even trouble recruiting teachers to fill vacancies, due the uncertain futures of the high schools.

The Rochester School Board, in fact, is apparently setting aside merger questions this week in order to focus on the issue of what to do about the high school this fall.

According to the published agenda, the board is convening a special meeting today, July 13 at 6 p.m. at the school to discuss “whether the school board will not seek to fill vacancies and offer free tuition to any school for any student in grades 9-12 for the 2017- 18 school year, if there is adequate participation.”

Board member Jessica Arsenault said this week that in terms of future planning, the board is developing a survey of the community to learn more about what direction the town wants for its school. While it is clear that many want high school choice, there is still uncertainty about what structure would work best for the rest of the school, PreK-6 or PreK-8, she said.

The Rochester board has begun discussions with Stockbridge, and is looking into the possibility of combining with the newly merged Orange Southwest District, comprising Braintree, Brookfield, and Randolph. A third option is looking into a stand-alone “alternative governance structure” proposal with the state.

Rochester also has an active group of citizens who have been exploring options for the school over the past few months.

Options are wide open for Chelsea, as well as for Tunbridge, which had approved in April a merged district that operates PreK- 8 schools with high school choice. In a re-vote on June 29, Tunbridge voters rejected the plan they had originally approved.

Bethel & Royalton

Lisa Floyd, also a member of the Bethel School Board, said that the board is focusing on the best way to provide “a dynamic program in our high school wing ... and more opportunities for our students.”

The desire is there to make a new form of Model 1 work for Bethel and Royalton, but there is less certainty as to whether or not the new proposal will be as cost-efficient as the original one, she said.

Royalton shares many of the same goals as Bethel, according to Royalton School Board Chair Christine Hudson. She said Royalton board members are looking forward to building their merger plans on the foundation they have in place.

Floyd noted that the new merger planning also creates an opening for Bethel and Royalton to work with Chelsea or other communities looking to merge in a PreK-12 structure.

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