BOE Gives Go-Ahead For SoRo, Bethel Merger

Front Page / Sep. 7, 2017 9:05am EDT

By Sandy Vondrasek

Six White River Valley towns are engaged in full-tilt school merger planning, as Act 46’s November 30 deadline approaches.

Mergers and other so-called “alternative structures” may be taken to the state after that date, but those districts will not be eligible to collect the financial incentives written into the law.

Study committees in two pairs of towns—Rochester and Stockbridge, and Chelsea and Tunbridge—are now pushing to finalize their respective merger proposals, so that they can be approved by the state Board of Education (BOE) and by voters before the November 30 deadline.

Another proposal, one that would merge Bethel and Royalton into a PreK-12 district, just got its BOE approval; an October 24 vote in the two towns is planned. These are all second-round proposals, taken up after earlier merger plans were torpedoed by “no” votes in some of the towns.

Bethel & Royalton

Last Wednesday, as expected, the BOE formally approved a new plan to merge the Bethel and Royalton systems into one district. This plan calls for a high school in South Royalton and a middle school in Bethel, with students PreK-5 educated in their hometown schools.

The Bethel and Royalton Act 46 Study Committee, which developed and presented the plan to the BOE, plans to hold a series of informational hearings on the plan in each of the towns, prior to the October 24 vote.

The Bethel and Royalton Study Committee meets next on Monday, Sept. 11, at 6 p.m. in Bethel. Information about the plan, including the presentation before the BOE last week, may be found on the Facebook group, Bethel & Royalton School Merger Discussion.

Chelsea & Tunbridge

On Tuesday night, a new Chelsea and Tunbridge Study Committee finished modifying an earlier merger plan that had been initially okayed by voters in both towns, but then defeated in a Tunbridge re-vote.

According to Kathy Galluzzo, a member of the committee and the chair of the Tunbridge board, the revised merger makes it harder to close a school in either of the two towns.

In the old merger plan, the one rejected by Tunbridge, a school could be closed by a majority vote of the joint board, with three representatives from each town. The new articles specify that the board and the voters of the town in question would both have to approve the closure in majority votes.

Galluzzo said the new plan also delays the start-up of a combined middle school. Whereas the first plan indicated that the two-town district would operate a middle school in Chelsea, the new plan directs the joint board to “explore” a joint middle school during the district’s first year of operation.

Like the first proposal, the plan calls for the merged district to educate students PreK-8, and to tuition out grades 9-12.

The Tunbridge and Chelsea School Boards will review the modified merger plan tonight, Thursday. Galluzzo said she anticipates the boards will approve the plan—two board members from each town sit on the study committee—but if necessary, the study committee will meet again Friday to consider any feedback from the boards.

She said that the committee hopes the BOE will review and approve the plan at its September 20 meeting. Assuming the BOE signs off on the plan, a vote would be held in the two towns on November 7.

If the BOE and voters approve this plan, Galluzzo pointed out, the new joint board must immediately begin work on a budget for the new district, which would begin operations in July 2018.

Rochester & Stockbridge

Stockbridge, which had initially been an outlier with no natural merger partner, is now working with Rochester on a merger plan that calls for educating PreK-6 students at their hometown schools, and tuitioning out grades 7-12. (See page A-5 for a report on the August 30 meeting of the Rochester-Stockbridge Study Committee.)

The study committee was scheduled to meet again last night, September 6, after The Herald went to press. The agenda was to review the merger plan and decide whether or not to submit it to the Stockbridge and Rochester School Boards and then to the BOE for approval. No vote date has been set.

In response to a request from Bethel and Rochester school officials, the BOE also agreed at its August 30 meeting to revoke its earlier approval for a Bethel-Rochester merger. Those two towns had hastily put together a “Plan B” merger proposal in the spring, when hopes for a three-town merger were dashed by a “no” vote in Royalton.

Other Towns

The towns noted above represent six of the 10 towns in the White River Valley Supervisory Union.

The Strafford and Sharon school districts are planning to submit their “alternative structure” proposals to the BOE early next year. Both towns had explored a number of merger options, but never found a suitable partner.

Last spring, voters in Hancock and Granville approved merging into one “non-operating” district that tuitions out all of its students. The viability of this small merger, however, is dependent on its existing “side-by-side” with at least one other district, and that district must be one that offers PreK-12 education.

Other merger plans, including those for Chelsea and Tunbridge and for Rochester and Stockbridge, would likely also need a PreK-12 side-by-side partner. However, the BOE may be receptive, in some cases, to “stand-alone” districts.

If voters in Royalton and Bethel approve their merger plan on October 24, that PreK-12 district could serve as the foundation for a side-by-side arrangement with these other mergers.

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