Act 46 Makes For Emotional Meeting in Rochester

Front Page / Mar. 30, 2017 9:48am EDT

By Martha Slater

Although the discussion remained civil, emotions were obviously strong among the residents who filled the commons area at Rochester High School Thursday evening, March 23 for what turned out to be a three-hour public discussion about Act 46.

Hosted by the Rochester School Board and moderated by Dan McKinley, the meeting began with board member Jessica Arseneault sharing an update on modifications to Act 46 provided by Rep. Sandy Haas, who was unable to attend. She noted that bill S.122, which had been proposed, covers deadline extensions or possibly designating a school as geographically isolated. If passed, it would give Rochester until November 30, 2017 for an extension.

Prior to a presentation on the proposed unified district merger given by Chris Mattrick and Andy West, Zygmunt Labejsza rose to request the same amount of discussion time for those considering saying “no” to the proposed scenario when the vote on the merger comes up in April.

Mattrick and West explained the proposed White River Valley Supervisory Union configuration, which would have PreK-5 schools in Rochester, Bethel, and South Royalton; a grades 6-8 middle school in Bethel, a high school in South Royalton, and an experiential learning center in the current middle/high school building in Rochester. There would be a nine-member school board, with each of the towns having three members, and a combined budget for all of the schools.

There would be an overall loss of 5.3 FTE staff positions.

Middle & High Schools

West noted that the middle school would have a curriculum tailored to the unique needs of middle school students, an interdisciplinary team and flexible schedule, and an advisory structure aimed at the students building strong connections with at least one adult.

Mattrick explained that there are currently 28 courses offered at Rochester High School, whereas the proposed WRVUHS would offer 79, and there would also be more sports opportunities. He shared a chart showing the many new courses that could be offered.

“We’re shooting for 15-17 students in classes,” WRVSU Supt. Bruce Labs added, noting that the high school would focus on 21stcentury skills, proficiency-based graduation requirements, and Flexible Pathways, such as the experiential learning center, RTCC, and early college programs.

Asked about concerns over lengthy transportation times, Labs said, “Our goal is to not have any student spend over an hour on the bus each way.”

ELC in Rochester

Labs explained that “the experiential learning center is not a ploy to save the Rochester building. It is a way to try to put together a sustainable program that uses attributes that Rochester has in order to help all kids.”

“It’s not just Rochester people that are excited about the center,” Mattrick pointed out. “At every meeting we’ve had, people have been excited about it. The program has sparked a lot of interest and we feel like once it gets up and running, we’ll be able to draw tuition students who want to learn there.”

West cited the Walden Project in Vergennes as an example of the type of program.

Mattrick explained that, depending upon how it was designed, students could spend several semesters or more at the center, where the program would be inquiry based. There would be three tracks—field science, which would include classroom instruction and field-based learning; education/ philosophy, and tourism/business.

Labs noted that there would be multiple ways for students to access this program, “some for a semester, a year, several weeks— time would be flexible. It’s not a finished product yet.”

Asked if students would be in the Rochester building 180 days a year, he replied, “That’s the vision, but it’s still being worked on.”

Mattrick also pointed out that there is an agreement with Castleton University to run dual enrollment and professional development courses out of the current high school building.

Principal Speaks

Rochester Principal Dani Stamm gave a lengthy and impassioned speech about her commitment to education, and outlined how they were building the experiential program to be ready on opening day in 2018.

“This is not a separate entity. The objective is to provide support and an extension of the whole program for the unified high school,” she said, describing experiential learning as “problem solving—the whole key concept of this is to learn to apply what you learn as you go.”

Asked how long she would stay if the merger goes through, Stamm replied, “I’ve got a contract and you need the support of a consistent administration. I’m staying.”

Other Options

Board members Frank Russell and Amy Wildt spoke about two other options that could be pursued if the vote on the proposed merger doesn’t pass on April 11. In each case, the other towns involved would have to approve it, too.

Russell said that one option would be to merge with Stockbridge for Pre-K-6 and have choice for grades 8-12. For the Pre-K-6 sites, the deadline to decide is July 1 of this year.

Wildt noted that Randolph is a pre-K-12 system, and a possible merger with them could be configured with either Pre-K-6 or Pre- K-8 staying in Rochester and either middle and high school or just high school students traveling to Randolph to attend RUHS. Rochester would lose its small schools grant if it merged out of its current SU, but she estimated that the tax rate would be less than it is now.

Public Comment

Many parents expressed their concerns that the estimated bus transportation times were not realistic. A number of people also noted that they wanted to keep students in Rochester through eighth grade.

“Once we give that up, it’s gone,” said teacher and parent Shawn Lenihan. “This valley could really use a K-8 and our community needs this school.”

Sue Domas thanked the study committee for their hard work, but said she thought Model 1, with three different locations, was “a logistical nightmare for families— people will move!”

“It’s a critical moment for the health of our community,” said Anni Mackay. “How will we continue to attract families with young kids?”

There will be an informational meeting Monday, April 10, the night before the April 11 Australian ballot vote on the proposed Model 1 merger.

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