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Community members in Rochester are examining the feasibility of turning the town’s school into an independent school.
A group known as the Rochester Independent School Investigatory Committee has been meeting with members of the public sharing information about the idea with community members this winter.
“Rochester has no school choice. Hancock and Granville have a choice about where to send their students,” said Mason Wade, a member of the committee and the Rochester School Board. He said that declining enrollments and the way that Vermont calculates each town’s enrollment and per pupil spending have the Rochester School set up for a financial disaster when state stats catch up to actual enrollment at the school.
“An academy would provide the community with more flexibility,” Wade said.
Currently Rochester has a pre-K through grade 12 school in town. In 2005 Hancock and Granville closed their shared pre-K through grade six schools and those students are now tuitioned to Warren, Middlebury and Rochester.
If Rochester’s school were closed and re-created as an independent school, Rochester’s students could also be tuitioned to nearby elementary, middle and high schools, or students could attend the newly created independent school, or what Wade called an academy.
Gretchen Cotell, one of those who initiated the creation of the committee, said that parents began exploring the idea a year ago.
“The school board gathered a group together under the guise of a futures committee tasked with coming up with some ideas on how to move the public school forward. One of my ideas, because Vermont has a voucher system, was to close the public school and create an independent school in its place. The state’s funding mechanism, through the voucher system, would pay tuition for Rochester students to attend the new school,” Cotell said.
“We’d have school choice after the public school closes and the independent school would lease the facility from the town’s school district,” she explained.
Generally, with such an independent school and the tuition reimbursement from the state, there is a gap between what is paid by the state and what parents must contribute, which means, Cotell said, that the independent school would have to partially self-fund itself.
Rochester’s budget for the 2013 year is $3.2 million and it serves approximately 150 students, although 30 of those students are “phantom,” students according to literature prepared by the Independent School Investigatory Committee. Phantom students, the literature explains, are the result of the state’s equalized pupil counts that do not decrease at the same rate that actual enrollment does.
The path from a public school to a private or independent school requires that the school board recommend to the community that the public school be closed, or that voters petition for the school to be closed and the matter comes to a public vote.
Rochester holds its annual school board meeting at the end of March and school board member Bill Cotell said that the school board has no intention of making such a recommendation to the community and that it is business as usual at the school and for the school board as it prepares its budget for the coming year.
The bottom line of the 2014 budget will be presented at a school board meeting on Thursday, February 21, in the library of the high school at 5:30 p.m. At that meeting, the school board members will also work on a fact sheet about the school and the budget to be presented to voters at the town’s annual school meeting on March 26.