South Royalton, Bethel Draft Plans for New Merger Vote

Front Page / Aug. 10, 2017 11:32am EDT

Act 46 Deadline Just Months Away
By Jo Levasseur

The clock is ticking for school officials in Bethel and Royalton to put forth a new consolidation plan, this time with only Bethel and South Royalton schools.

The new plan has many parallels to a three-town merger plan that was rejected by Rochester voters: elementary students would stay at their home-town schools, and go on to attend middle school in Bethel and high school in South Royalton. A vote for the two-town plan will be in October.

At the first official meeting of the new, two-town study committee Monday at SoRo School, study committee and school board members, with several members of the public, hashed out wording for the new Articles of Agreement that would govern the merger.

These articles must be finalized for presentation to the State Board of Education on August 30, along with a request of revocation of Plan B, a hastily drawn-up Bethel- Rochester consolidation that neither town now wants to pursue. For Royalton and Bethel, revising the Articles of Agreement is the top priority for the next few weeks. Once the new plan is approved by the BOE, the Study Committee will have less than two months to convince the public to vote “yes.”

The date selected for the vote—Tuesday, October 24—is pending approval of the town clerks. In Australian balloting, voters will be asked to approve the articles and to select six board members.

In order to meet legal deadlines for posting a warning for a ballot vote, candidates for the new joint school board must file petitions five-to-six weeks before the vote, in their respective towns.

School Board Composition

Although Bethel has traditionally elected school board members from the floor at the annual school meeting, entering into this consolidated district, should it pass, means Bethel will need to elect school board members by Australian ballot in the future.

The composition of the school board, as approved by the committee Monday night, will consist of six members-at-large, three from each town.

Board members “at large” means that they are charged with acting for the benefit of all students in the consolidation district, and that member numbers aren’t dictated by the populations of their towns. Voters will be asked to vote for not more than three of the candidates from each town, similar to how our county senators are elected.

Strategies to bring the consolidation information to the public will be the next mission. Consolidation efforts in the SU have resulted in disappointing rejections, as in Royalton’s no vote April 11 on the pro- posed Royalton/Bethel/Rochester consolidation, and then surprising reversals, with Royalton saying yes and Rochester saying no, in June revotes.

Adding to the uncertainty for the SU as a whole, Rochester is now considering a merger with Stockbridge, with choice for high school.

Also, a PreK-8 consolidation for Tunbridge and Chelsea was turned down by Tunbridge in a petitioned re-vote on June 29. However, Tunbridge school directors have agreed to hold a second revote on the question. The Tunbridge board was to set the date for that vote Wednesday night, after The Herald went to press.

Multiple Unknowns

Presenters at Monday’s meeting in Royalton cautioned that they can’t predict what the state will decide should this plan be voted down. Even if the consolidation is approved, another uncertainty remains: the state could order other towns to join the merged district, if their consolidations fail.

It was pointed out that tax incentives would be lost for Bethel and Royalton, if their voters turn down this plan.

Budget Estimates

In presenting budget analyses, Superintendent Bruce Labs said the savings aren’t as great as would have been with the three town merger, but would amount to an estimated $137,000, without cutting new program opportunities.

The outdoor educational program that was to be at the Rochester school in the tri-town merger, is still on the agenda for this smaller merger, although in a different way. The program, which was well received by the BOE, can operate by using resources in both communities, it was said.

Budget estimates for the proposed Bethel-Royalton merger include development of the CEEL program, and increased offerings in academics and extracurricular activities, amounting to better opportunities for all students.

Chair Lisa Floyd said the figure of $137,000 was “the minimum we could save, and still offer all those things, without limiting the budget of the new board coming in.”

If neighboring towns become choice schools, Labs said, tuition students opting to come to the newly merged district could double the number presently in each school. That would increase revenues and savings, he said.

If there is a “yes” vote for the merger in October, the new board would begin working immediately to present a budget at the annual school meeting in March. This would have to be a joint meeting of both towns, if the custom of voting the budget from the floor is to be maintained.

The committee agreed Monday that the unified district would hold joint (annual) floor meetings, alternating between the towns, for budget votes and other business, and to elect school directors by Australian ballot.

The next meeting of the Bethel- Royalton Study Committee will be Monday, Aug. 14, 6 p.m., at Whitcomb High School in Bethel.

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