By Tiffany Danitz Pache, VTDigger
Local residents met this week to go over their options under Act 46 in preparation for a June 13 revote on a school district merger with Rochester and Bethel.
In April, Royalton voters overwhelmingly rejected the same proposal, but resident Laurie Smith said people were surprised to learn their vote also halted mergers across the supervisory union. She and others petitioned for a revote, believing there was enough confusion to warrant it. They formed a committee and Tuesday night, May 30, held the first of three forums to explain the merger proposal and any other options for Royalton.
If Royalton voters say yes this time, it will merge with Bethel and Rochester into one school district. Each town will keep its elementary school, all students will attend middle school in Bethel, and high school students will go to Royalton. There would be one budget and one school board with three members from each town.
If Royalton voters say no, they have to come up with another merger, ask the State Board of Education’s approval of an alternative structure, or wait and let the state board decide their fate.
Andrew Jones, a Royalton resident who ran for the unified union school board that would have been set up if the town went for the merger, laid out the
possible paths before a crowd of at least 30 community members Tuesday. He said doing nothing was not an option.
“If we don’t act, the state will define our structure,” Jones said, explaining the state has authority to put unmerged school districts together.
“The bottom line is we need to do something, and the question is what,” he said.
Royalton operates a school offering pre-kindergarten through 12th grade and would need to merge with another pre-K-through-12 district. If voters again reject a merger with Bethel and Rochester, the next closest alike school districts are Hartford and Randolph. The downside of these options is that Royalton is much smaller and would have less representation on any of the school boards.
“They could close the school without us having much say in it,” Jones said.
Royalton could also choose to close its high school and offer to pay tuition for students to attend another public or private school.
Another option would be for the school board to apply to the state under Section 9 of Act 46 for what has become known as an alternative structure. But that comes with its own drawbacks, according to Jones.
Royalton would have to merge with other school districts to the extent possible under the law even when applying for an alternative structure.
In a letter written before the April vote, Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe said Royalton was too small to meet the expectations in Act 46 and remain sustainable. Holcombe also praised the Act 46 study committee’s proposal in an op-ed.
Donna Russo-Savage, who works for the Agency of Education, was at Tuesday night’s forum to answer questions. She said an alternative proposal could be a hard sell for Royalton, mainly because the original plan was so comprehensive, persuasive and well-liked by the state board and secretary.
“The state was very impressed with your proposal for being forward-thinking and putting kids first,” she said. She added that, “having already made the argument to the state board, it will be a little bit hard to come back and say, ‘But on the other hand, actually, we think we are fine.’”
Smith asked Russo-Savage what would happen if Royalton chose to do nothing, saying some residents want to call the state’s bluff by waiting it out.
Russo-Savage said that although the state board hopes communities will come together on their own, the bill lawmakers just passed that is now Act 49 is proof they mean what they already said.
“The Legislature is really saying, ‘Yes, this is what we mean, we aren’t going to pull back on Act 46,’” Russo-Savage said.
She added that the state board is under a lot of pressure to come up with a final governance plan that is sustainable and meets education and fiscal goals in the law. “(Board members) don’t want to do it, but they have been told they have to do it,” she said.
Rochester’s revote, “no” merger, “yes” choice?
Another wrinkle Royalton voters have to consider is that Rochester has also petitioned for a revote, and it submitted a Plan B that the state board has approved. There are also people in Rochester who don’t like either proposal, and some would like to close the high school and offer students tuition to go to other schools. They submitted a valid petition in February asking for an article to be placed on the ballot at Town Meeting in March, but the select board denied their request, according to resident Mason Wade, who questions the legality of that move. If the select board was indeed wrong in denying the article, “the April 11 vote would be null and void,” Wade said, referring to the vote when Rochester approved the merger. Wade expects the select board to check with the Jim Condos, secretary of state, and report back at the next select board meeting, June 5.
Another group petitioned for a revote of the same article and that vote is scheduled after Royalton’s, but Royalton community members were concerned about what happens if they vote yes and Rochester votes no.
In that case, Bethel may be freed up to partner with Royalton.
“Our yes vote still signals something,” said John Olmstead, a former South Royalton school board member. “If we vote yes, we keep our options open,” he said.
Population decline, increased cost
Royalton and its would-be merger partners are part of a statewide student enrollment decline since the late 1990s. In that time, Royalton has lost 40 percent of its students, Bethel has lost 33 percent, and Rochester has seen a 52 percent decline, according to Holcombe.
Jessica Ryan, a 1998 graduate of South Royalton School, spoke at the meeting about what she found upon moving back in 2013 from Massachusetts. She said she was shocked to learn many of the programs and sports she enjoyed as a student were not available at the school due to declining enrollment.
Over this past school year, Royalton lost 40 students, according to Olmstead.
“It impacts cost per pupil, it impacts tax dollars, it impacts class sizes,” he said. It wasn’t too long ago that South Royalton considered closing the school because it appeared it might have only 300 students, according to Olmstead.
Ryan is now a registered nurse. She said she has the same size house and same cost as she did in Massachusetts but pays twice as much in taxes. Massachusetts had fantastic schools and she made about $15 more per hour, Ryan added.
Olmstead explained the fiscal effects of declining enrollment.
“Per pupil spending in the last 15 years is significantly higher than the rate of inflation,” he said. “We have fixed costs that keep going up — we have to heat the building, we have payroll. We can’t really get around it — we have to pay these same costs with less students.”
Bethel resident Rodney Rainville, a member of the merger study committee, told the crowd Tuesday that his town is in the same boat as Royalton. Budget constraints have chipped away at the quality of education, he said. “We want to build a better education. All the people of Bethel will worry about the kids from Royalton,” he promised residents.
“If we can’t merge, then I see our high school closing down the line. They just can’t support it anymore,” he added.
(Polly Lynn Mikula contributed to this report.)