On February 24, 2021

Stockbridge to vote on ending school merger

By Katy Savage

Stockbridge voters will decide on Town Meeting Day, March 2, whether to withdraw from the Rochester Stockbridge Unified School District and operate Stockbridge Central School as its own entity.

The article is being presented after a group of about 50 Stockbridge residents filed a petition with the Stockbridge Select Board.

If approved, the proposal will go to the Rochester Select Board for voter approval. If approved by Rochester voters, it would go to the state board for approval. It could become effective as soon as July 1, 2022.

White River Valley Supervisory Union Superintendent Jamie Kinnarney said some in the district have questioned the sustainability of the merger and have felt like the promises of making Rochester Elementary School and Stockbridge Central a combined district, including better programing and decreased costs, haven’t been met.

“Maybe that’s why folks were frustrated, they didn’t feel like they were seeing that happening,” Kinnarney said.

The merged district was created in July 2018. Since then, Stockbridge voters have repeatedly said they are seemingly carrying the weight of schools in Rochester.

“I think we have to do business differently,” Kinnarney said.

In the combined district, Rochester voters saw a $1.50 tax rate while Stockbridge saw a $1.65 tax rate this year. If separated, the tax rate would have jumped as high as $2.30 in Stockbridge because the school would enter a penalty phase for excess per pupil spending. If Stockbridge eliminated $270,016 from the budget, or about 3.5 staff positions, the tax rate could have been as low as $1.69 in Stockbridge this year, while the tax rate in Rochester would have been $1.75, if they were separated.

Kinnarney said the ability to realize future savings would also dwindle if the district separated.

“I think the ability to think outside the box, to do business differently, to find further efficiency, becomes significantly decreased,” Kinnarney said.

Stockbridge voters widely defeated the budget last year, largely because of maintenance costs associated with the vacant Rochester High School building.

Rochester residents voted to close the 25,000-square-foot Rochester High School in 2017, but Rochester Elementary School students have continued to use the auditorium and music rooms in the building. The building also houses the phone and security system for Rochester Elementary School.

The school board voted to close the high school building for instructional purposes earlier this year — a move already in place due to Covid-19. The board cut $13,000 in fuel costs and another $6,000 in maintenance costs associated with the high school from the budget. The Envision Rochester High School Repurposing Committee has urged the Rochester Select Board to acquire the high school building for $1 last September. The Rochester Select Board is expected to make a decision on that proposal by April.

“If they don’t want the building, [the school board] is fully prepared to look at offering it for sale to a third party or shutter the building completely in September,” Kinnarney said.

Kinnarney said costs associated with maintaining the high school building aren’t included in next year’s budget proposal.

The combined school budget for next year is proposed at $4.32 million, which is down from $4.37 million. The savings come from the elimination of one principal position as co-principal Bonnie Bourne steps into a new role. Some support staff were also eliminated. The budget will be presented to voters in May.

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