Local News

Rochester weighs costs, benefits of Act 46 plan

Vote scheduled for April 11

By Evan Johnson
The future of education in the town of Rochester has been on the minds of its residents lately and last week, community members, including parents teachers and staff, gathered to review a plan they said would change their community.
At issue is the school district’s plan to unify with two neighboring school districts in compliance with Act 46, the 2015 state education mandate that requires smaller school districts to unite with larger ones or face penalties. The proposal up for vote next month is the result of a year and a half of study and 13 meetings. At the start of the meeting, superintendent Bruce Labs said the goal was to serve all students in the potential supervisory union.
“If you think that this is a save-Rochester initiative it’s not,” he said. “This is a program that all of our students can take advantage of at different times.”
Rochester votes April 11.
Model 1
Chris Mattrick, who served on the study committee gave a presentation on Model 1, the district’s plan to unify the school districts of Rochester, Bethel and Royalton into one supervisory union, called the White River Supervisory Union.
The governing board would be comprised of nine members, three from each town serving 1-, 2-, or 3-year terms. The board would set one budget for the entire supervisory union. Under the plan, students will attend the elementary school according to town of residence. The board of directors may allow for student enrollment at a district school other than that located in the town of residence, based on individual student circumstances.
Currently, Rochester has 19 students in grades 6 – 8 and 20 students in grades 9 – 12. Under the proposed model, students in the middle school would travel 12 miles to Whitcomb High School in Bethel, while high schoolers would travel 20.4 miles to South Royalton High School.
In consolidating with neighboring middle and high schools, school administrators see opportunities to reduce costs and increase opportunities for students. The consolidated high school would nearly triple the number of courses available to students and include more sections with roughly 15 students per class.
For student transportation, the model is considering staggered start times for students, a breakfast program, bus service to Chelsea, Tunbridge and Stockbridge and technical programs in Hartford and Randolph. Existing bus service for elementary school would be unchanged.
The meeting detailed staffing possibilities for the unified district. According to documents distributed at the meeting, the elementary schools would staff 42.85 teachers, the Bethel middle school would staff 14.5 teachers, the Center for Environmental and Experiential Learning in Rochester would staff 4 and the high school in Royalton would staff 22, for a total of 83.35. The plan, as proposed, would call for the elimination of 5.31 teaching positions from physical education/health, music, elementary, middle and high school positions. Chris Mattrick said those numbers would not mean five individuals losing employment.
“It’s portions of positions,” he said.
While losing a middle and high school, Mattrick said Castleton University has committed to running dual enrollment programs and professional development opportunities at the Rochester school.
The administration estimates that savings from the merging of three middle school programs and three high school programs will be approximately $1 million, driven largely by full time equivalencies. The new district will likely make $400,000 in new investments related to the new Rochester-based programs and added curricular and extra-curricular offerings, resulting in an estimated net savings of $600,000.
The tax implications of a “no” vote on the merger were also laid out. For a house valued at $200,000, the education tax rate is projected to increase to 2.363 percent by 2022, an amount of $4,726. That’s up from the current 1.51 percent, or  $3,020.
While the bulk of the presentation and discussion revolved around Model 1, the School Board discussed two alternatives, should voters reject the plan. Frank Russell, School Board and study committee member said Rochester can choose to explore joining with Stockbridge, an “orphan” under Act 46, to create a supervisory union, keeping pre-kindergarten through sixth grade and tuition middle and high school students to neighboring high schools. The two schools would create a board and receive a combined small schools grant. School board and study committee member Frank Russell said it was still unclear how the tax rate would change.
School Board member Amy Wildt presented a second alternative that would have Rochester join with the Orange Southwest Supervisory Union, comprised of the towns of Randolph, Braintree and Brookfield. The pre-kindergarten through 12th grade program is 16 miles from Rochester and owns its own transit system that could add service to Rochester at no additional cost. The move would require a restructure of the supervisory union board.
Should Rochester choose to pursue either of these alternatives, superintendent Labs made clear the process would have to move fast. For the first alternative, both towns would have to approve plans to merge in addition to approval of the plan by the State Board of Education by July 1—a timespan of just over two months. The second alternative, in addition to local approval, Randolph, Braintree and Brookfield would all have to vote to allow Rochester to join the supervisory union.
A community responds
Following the presentations, visitors raised questions.Rochester kindergarten teacher Amy Braun compared the Act 46 experience to moving through stages of grief. “I’m definitely in the anger stage” she said. “I’m not only a mother, but I’m a community member and I care about this town. I bought a house here. I’m not going anywhere, but it breaks me up to think that we can’t come up with something aside from what’s being given.”
Rochester resident Megan Payne said she felt the study committee hadn’t adequately weighed Rochester’s needs.   “You missed out on a very opportunity to engage this community to discuss what we wanted to do with our school,” she said. “It was a missed opportunity and that’s why we are here.”
Tenth grader Samantha Paige said she wished the study committee had reached out more to the students who would be educated in the new system. Should the proposal be approved and enacted in 2019, Paige would spend her senior year in a new high school.
“Nobody talked to us,” she said. “They created this new system but they haven’t done enough to hear our opinion on it.”

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