Local News

Rochester residents advocate for choice

Upcoming two Act 46 revotes may dictate merger options

By Tiffany Danitz Pache, VTDigger

While writing legislation this year to give school districts more flexibility in complying with Act 46, lawmakers worried the changes might derail local merger conversations already taking place.

That is just what seems to be happening in Rochester.

The town has already gotten state Board of Education approval for two potential merger options: one involving Bethel and Royalton, and a contingency plan involving just Bethel, in case Royalton voters again reject the first proposal, as they did overwhelmingly in April.

Royalton is holding a revote Tuesday, and Rochester residents have also decided to reconsider their earlier approval of the three-town unification. A revote in Rochester is scheduled June 20.

But some residents, interested in pursuing school choice for a district that now operates pre-K-12, want to know whether the recently enacted Act 49 creates new opportunities.

“We can come up with another plan,” said Tim Pratt, a Rochester resident. He attended a recent “informal” meeting that two school board members called in response to residents’ questions about the law.

Act 49, once known as H.513, offers a few more ways for districts to merge and still get tax incentives while holding onto small-schools grants. The law also gives towns more time to come up with a proposal and get a positive vote on it.

“The one thing we were trying to achieve was to make Act 46 work for all school districts,” said Rep. Scott Beck, R-St.Johnsbury, a member of the House Education Committee. “The two potential side effects were: It could derail or change a set of discussions going on; and, or you could make consolidated districts angry if there was an option they would have liked to have had that wasn’t available when they voted.”

About 25 people attended the meeting last week in Rochester, including parents, other residents and some of the Act 46 study committee members.

“This isn’t some one-night-stand for Rochester. We need to marry this plan, and we need to make sure it is right the first time,” Pratt said of the merger proposals, which he opposes.

But while it is understandable

that people from Rochester want to look at other options, the problem is these towns have already made legal agreements to merge with their neighbors, according to Stephen Dale, the facilitator for the Act 46 study committee.

A legal process was followed, and the resulting proposals must now go to the voters, he said.

The unification of the Royalton, Rochester and Bethel districts — all of which operate k-12 — was the backbone of a side-by-side merger that included four other school districts in the supervisory union. When Royalton alone rejected the three-town plan, none of the mergers could move forward.

A subcommittee from the Act 46 study group then crafted and got state approval for the plan B pact involving just Rochester and Bethel. That backup goes before voters in those towns if either Royalton or Rochester rejects the primary plan.

Dale said the Act 46 study group members “set a direction for their community. They did incredible amounts of analysis and came up with a deal that they are putting to a vote. Should the community not buy either plan A or plan B, then yes, we can come back and talk about what happens next, but we shouldn’t be talking about options C and D while we are committed to a plan A and  plan B. Those decisions have already been made, until the electorate votes.”

Rochester School Board member Frank Russell, who is also a member of the Act 46 study group, said the board and the study committee are 100 percent committed to merging with Bethel and Royalton, calling it a “legally binding commitment.”

If it doesn’t go through in either Royalton or Rochester, said Russell, then the board is also wedded to the contingency plan to merge with Bethel.

“As a board we can’t ethically be engaged in contacting any other boards” until these votes occur, Russell said, adding he thinks Act 49 is “fueling the conversation in Rochester… They think it has opened up all these options, but it hasn’t,” he said.

Specifically, the new law reinspired talk about having an elementary school and then choice instead of joining into a merger with either Bethel or Royalton.

Russell said he understands why parents are interested in the choice model. A lot of them work near other high schools such as Middlebury.

But officials face a new Nov. 30 deadline to act or risk losing grants the district counts on to run the school and incentives that would bring tax relief.

There isn’t enough time for Rochester to vote to close its high school and have school choice, then make an alliance with other school districts, form a proposal, go to the state board for approval, and have voters weigh in by Nov. 30 deadline. Votes and public meetings have to be warned, and it is just much more complicated than people might think, according to Russell.

“I think the Nov. 30 deadline is a problem in terms of financial consequences for Rochester, which are substantial,” he said.

But Pratt said a number of people at the meeting wanted to close the high school and offer to tuition students to other schools. “Almost everyone in the room agreed it should be school choice, except a couple of them, that would work the best for Rochester,” he said, adding it would help sell real estate.

Pratt said neither of the merger proposals provides more opportunity to Rochester students. The towns will still have to merge under the law whether they change the way they deliver education or not.

It doesn’t surprise Beck that Rochester is looking for alternatives. “You change the rules midstream, and people are going to look at the new set of rules and figure out what is best for them,” he said.

But he said the conversations going on in Rochester would be happening even without the new legislation.

“These different permutations they are contemplating have nothing to do with H.513 — they have to do with Royalton telling them they don’t want to join,” Beck said.

Submitted photo

Lauren Skaskiw reads to the morning class of pre-k students at Rochester School.

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