In a major turnaround Tuesday, Royalton voters approved the proposed school merger in a re-vote, 377 to 248.
“I am ecstatic—over the moon. Royalton citizens have done their kids a great favor,” said Geo Honigford, a school board member who also served on the study committee that developed the proposal to merge Bethel, Rochester, and Royalton into one school district, to comply with Act 46.
In initial voting on the proposal in April, Royalton voters rejected the plan by a margin of more than two to one, 460-203. The turnout this week was a little lower, with 625 voters total, compared to 663 in April.
School consolidations across the state will create larger schools for districts whose separate, small schools are no longer economically viable, due to dropping enrollments. Even so, in many cases—as in South Royalton’s—the new merged school district won’t have as many students as Royalton once had.
Under this merger plan, “We won’t be losing our small school,” former School Board Chair John Olmstead told voters at an informational meeting Monday night.
“We will be sharing it,” he continued. “We’re doing it because of Act 46, but without Act 46, it would still make sense”.
The challenge to educate voters on Act 46 compliance, and convince them to vote for the merger plan, has been long and arduous, and complaints have been made that the study committee had moved too quickly, or didn’t explore enough options.
Meanwhile, many people said they had voted against the merger because they just don’t like Act 46, although no alternative plan had been proposed by any opposition groups.
Royalton’s stunning turn-down of the merger on April 11, which passed in all other towns affected, left Bethel and Rochester with a less viable plan in terms of economics and equity, and left Tunbridge, Chelsea, Granville, and Hancock with no “side-by-side” PreK-12 partner.
“Lots of people said that as they learned more about it, they changed their minds,” Laurie Smith said this week. Smith, a former school board member and study committee member, was part of a “Royalton Re- Votes” group that formed after the April vote.
Others had the same response: “I voted no the first time, but I’m voting yes this time,” was a comment from several voters Tuesday, who asked not to be identified.
A High Bar
A complicating factor is the state law on conducting a re-vote, which says, according to committee member Andrew Jones, that the re-vote must win the day with a majority vote that totals two-thirds of the previous no vote. Tuesday’s vote exceeded that threshold.
“Re-vote” members spent long hours approaching friends and neighbors known to have favored a no vote, and apparently those efforts paid off.
When Royalton voted no on April 11, it took down all three merger plans proposed in the SU. That’s because the “side-by-side” merger structure used as a framework mandates that one of the unified districts provide PreK-12 education. Many voters said they had no idea of the far-reaching implications, and how much the merger votes were tied together in the SU restructuring.
“We in the study committee think this model is best for our kids and community, and the communities around us” John Olmstead said at Monday’s pre-vote meeting.
Royalton’s re-vote will not, however, instantly revive merger plans in the SU. Rochester, which approved the proposed merger in April, will hold its own petitioned re-vote on the question next Tuesday.
If Rochester voters say no, the three-to-one merger—as well as the associated side-by-side mergers for Chelsea, Tunbridge, Granville, and Hancock—will again be off the table.
The clock is ticking. For the towns to access the fiscal incentives of Act 46, merger plans must ultimately be approved by November 30.
Tuesday’s re-vote, by petition, did not include a new vote on board members, so those elected in April from the three towns of Rochester, Bethel, and Royalton will comprise the board for the merged district, if it becomes operational in July 2018.
If Rochester votes yes next week, the nine members of the White River Unified School District Board will have plenty to do before then, as they work with administrators to finalize a budget, staffing, and curriculum for the merged district.