The Mountain Times

°F Thu, April 17, 2014

Central Vermont's Most Popular Weekly Newspaper

Rochester considers independent school

ROCHESTER - A committee of local residents in Rochester want the local school board to consider closing the elementary school and replacing it with an independent one.

"It comes down to enrollment," said Rochester resident Gretchen Cotell, and a member of the Rochester Independent School Investigatory Study Committee (ISIS.) "We have too few children. We have a hard time keeping up."

Cotell said enrollment has dropped 50 percent in the last eight years. Currently, the school, which educates students from kindergarten through 12th grade, has 220 students, according to the school's website. ISIS claims that about 150 of them are in elementary school.

Jolanta Labejsza, who chairs the Rochester school board, said she did not think the school could sustain itself.

"It will mainly be funded by taxes, but a lot of the funds will have to be raised," she said. "I don't know if the committee can raise $1 million a year."

Labejsza said a number of school services, like special education and sports, would require more support than taxpayers may be willing to give.

"Once the community is informed, they'll need to know those facts," she said.

The ISIS Committee will be holding public forums on Jan. 31 and Feb. 15 in the Rochester town hall at 6 p.m.

For an example, the committee looked to North Bennington, which recently closed its elementary school in favor of an independent one. To do that, the voters first had to approve it, and the state had to grant permission. However, the state board rejected the request at first due to doubts about the new school's ability to meet special education needs.

"It could mean loss of local control, and less money going to the supervisory union," said Labejsza. "Declining enrollment is a problem all around the state. I've been to different meetings to discuss the options, like consolidation or closing the school."

Windsor Northwest Supervisory Union board member Carl Groppe said the supervisory union was keeping an eye on the situation.

"Rochester has been concerned about declining enrollment for a number of years," he said. "If I had to consider it, closing the school would be the least attractive option."

Under the ISIS proposal, Rochester would become a non-operating school district, which means it would still operate the facilities and lease the building to the independent school. The new school would charge tuition, and taxpayer money would be provided for Rochester students. A board of trustees would govern the school, and voters would still decide the school budget.

As a tuition town, Rochester parents could use the tuition money to send their children to any school they wish.
Cotell said she hopes that the independent school would bring more families to Rochester.

"We're hoping property taxes will come down," she said, "and we're hoping it would bring more people in. Families, not just kids."
Cotell stressed that the group just wants the school board to study the question right now. Her husband, William, is a member of the Rochester school board.

"He's dedicated to doing his best for the education of Rochester's children," she said.

The full ISIS committee proposal, and their findings, can be found at,  www.rochesterisiscommittee.weebly.com