On April 12, 2017

With Act 46 votes, deadline looms

By Evan Johnson

Rochester and Wells both have important votes deciding education plans this week. Should they fail, they’ll need to quickly come up with backup plans quickly that satisfy the state’s requirements.

Rochester votes April 11 on a plan to unify with districts in Bethel and Royalton. The plan, called Model 1, calls for each of the school districts to educate pre-k through grade 6 students at their existing schools. Middle and high school students would travel to schools in Bethel and Royalton, respectively. While Rochester, Bethel and Royalton vote on Model 1, Granville and Hancock will vote on forming the Hancock Granville United School District, and Chelsea and Tunbridge will vote on forming the First Branch Unified School District. Should Model 1 fail, so too do the other votes.

“The three towns are the hub of this wheel,” White River Valley Supervisory Union superintendent Bruce Labs said. “And without them you can’t have the other two unifying votes.”

In the White River Valley Supervisory Union, the study committee identified two alternatives to Model 1. The school district could try for a revote at Model 1 or explore an alternative to merge with Stockbridge and Randolph — two options that have not been fully studied, Labs said. “We were accused of not looking at those other options, but we really can’t until this is finished, and it’ll be finished when that town says it is finished.”

In Wells, a margin of one vote on Town Meeting Day caused the failure of a plan to create two side-by-side districts, one comprised of Poultney, Proctor and West Rutland, called Quarry Valley, and the other called Wells Springs, which joined Middletown Springs and Wells. The plan is to replace the Rutland Central and Rutland Southwest supervisory unions with a yet-to-be-named union.

All towns were designated “necessary,” requiring the participating towns to approve the measure for it to carry. Since a petition to revote was filed after Town Meeting Day, they’ll take up the issue again this Thursday, April 13.

In Wells, if the vote is “yes,” the opposition cannot petition for a revote. If the vote fails, there is no opportunity for a second revote. The study committee will be disbanded and a new one convened to decide the way forward. The School Board would also have to meet with the state Board of Education to have that new plan approved.

“It’s difficult,” superintendent for Rutland Southwest Dr. Joan Paustian said. “The timeframe is challenging, but it’s doable.”

The education mandate requires smaller school districts to unify with larger ones by July 1 or face penalties, so should Rochester’s Model 1 be voted down and Wells’ revote yield the same result this week, the towns will need to come up with alternatives — and quickly.

A new bill by the Senate Committee on Education would extend the deadline for unification to November. The bill, S.122, has been passed by the full Senate and has been referred to the House education committee for consideration.

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