Royalton voted “no”; a “yes” vote was necessary for school board merger to pass
By Evan Johnson
School district officials and community members are looking for a way forward after a plan to unify seven towns into three “side-by-side” districts in central Vermont failed last week. Royalton was the only one to vote down the measure, by a margin of 460 to 203.
“I was surprised that it went down at all because we were trying to make something better than we have right now.” Bruce Labs, superintendent for the White River Valley Supervisory Union said after the votes were counted.
The plan would have created three small districts under the larger supervisory union. Granville and Hancock — both non-operating school districts — would tuition their students to other schools and unify under a newly created Granville-Hancock Unified School District. Voters supported the plan with tallies of 23-3 in Granville and 35-4 in Hancock.
Chelsea and Tunbridge would create the First Branch Unified School District, operating pre-kindergarten through grade 8 with full choice for high school students. Voters approved that plan in Chelsea, 173-78, and in Tunbridge, 151-109.
The towns in the First Branch and Granville-Hancock districts were designated as “advisable,” as only one was needed to pair with another district in a “side-by-side” designation.
The largest portion of the unification puzzle was for the three towns of Rochester, Bethel and Royalton, which would form the White River Valley Unified District. Each of the three towns would feature an elementary school serving pre-kindergarten through grade 5, a single middle school (grades 6-8) for the district located in Bethel and a single unified high school program centered in South Royalton. Rochester would operate an outdoor education and environmental program.
Voters in Rochester weighed the pros and cons of the plan at public meetings leading up to the vote. While Model 1 would cause Rochester to close its middle and high schools on its campus and send students over a sizable mountain to Bethel and Royalton, students would see expanded opportunities, including more classes, and taxpayers would see the stabilization of local homestead tax rates. Rochester voted in favor of Model 1, 213-178. Bethel, which would retain use of its middle school, voted overwhelmingly in favor of Model 1, 320-67.
“Folks will tell you it was rushed, but it wasn’t rushed. We were meeting in July,” White River Valley Superintendent Bruce Labs said. “I don’t think people want change and obviously they’ve spoken and I have to respect that.”
Rochester, Bethel and Royalton were all deemed “necessary” to the merger and were required to approve the measure for unification to carry.
Royalton has the largest population of the three towns and the largest number of pupils. It would retain use of its high school, and middle schoolers would travel to neighboring Bethel.
School districts must pass a unification plan by July 1or face penalties from the state.
A new unified district would receive tax incentives over the first four years of operation. When the budgets are unified, a new tax rate would be determined, then dropping two cents each year. Now, the town can either hold a revote or hope the legislature passes a measure to extend the June 30 deadline to November to get those tax incentives.
A planning meeting for the supervisory union to determine the way forward has not been set yet.