Wakonda School Board forced to reorganize; Petition calls for plan to dissolve school district upon

Wakonda School Board forced to reorganize; Petition calls for plan to dissolve school district upon voter approval by M. Jill Karolevitz Members of the Wakonda School Board must develop a plan for reorganization of the school district as the result of a petition filed by Mike Lovejoy, rural Wakonda, during the board's regular meeting Monday night.

The petition's introduction states: "We the undersigned qualified voters of the Wakonda School District No. 63-1, petition that the school board of the Wakonda School District No. 63-1 develop a reorganization plan dissolving the school district by attaching to another district or districts pursuant to SDCL 13-6 and that an election be held on the plan."

"I know that reorganization of our school district is a highly emotional and difficult issue to present, but for myself, and many others, we feel it is time to seriously consider the issue," Lovejoy told the school board Monday night. "Many have expressed concern about the term dissolution in the petition drive that we helped initiate. It is my belief and understanding that dissolution is but a form of consolidation or reorganization.

"Before anything of this nature can take place, our citizens would have the opportunity to participate in the development of a plan of reorganization which would involve annexation of territory to one or possibly several surrounding districts," he continued. "If the bulk of the territory of our district were to be annexed to another district under a proposed plan, it may very well be that an attendance center will remain open in Wakonda.

"It is my hope that the board will move forward with the development of a plan of reorganization which is feasible, attractive to the citizens and most importantly, one which will provide our students with the best possible education for the limited funds available to provide that education," he added.

Lovejoy pursued the idea of the petition after the school board decided in May to issue 20-year capital outlay certificates for the construction of a new elementary school adjacent to the existing building. The school district can spend up to $1,138,740 in this manner � but not over 1.5 percent of the assessed valuations for the district.

Three failed bond issue elections for construction/remodeling projects led to the school board's decision to go with capital outlay certificates.

"We discussed the (third bond issue) vote during the May 14 school board meeting," said Superintendent Ron

Flynn. "We had 59 percent, and 60 percent is needed for passage. That percentage stayed virtually the same each time we had an election. The school board had reached a point where they thought a solid majority wanted us to do something and with capital outlay certificates, we could without another election."

Lovejoy, with his parents Darlene and Ardell, attended the May 14 school board meeting. He voiced his concern about the project.

"We've got a lot of children that are opting out of the district," he said. "We're afraid we're going to have a new building but no kids. I went to the school board in a neutral position and told them they should do a census with parents to see where the kids are going. It's kind of foolish to build if kids are going to go to other schools."

The school board took no action in May on Lovejoy's suggestion.

"We had listened to them, but the session had gotten long and it was time to move on," Flynn said.

Lovejoy moved on as well, seeking advice from the Associated School Boards of South Dakota regarding his concerns. The petition for reorganization was the result. Only 15 percent of the registered voters in the district (about 119) needed to sign the petitions in order for them to be filed.

As the petitions were being circulated, Lovejoy sought a permanent injunction to prevent the school board from taking any further action with regard to the issuance of capital outlay certificates and construction. But Circuit Judge Glen W. Eng ruled July 3 that "the school board had acted within its legal rights to go ahead with the capital outlay certificates and they can proceed with construction if they so choose," said Tom Frieberg, Lovejoy's attorney.

The Wakonda School Board now has 15 days to acknowledge receipt of the petitions and verify the 154 signatures. The school board must then develop the reorganization plan within 180 days and file the plan with Ray Christensen, secretary of the SD Department of Education and Cultural Affairs, who must approve the plan, then set a date for an election seeking approval of the voters in the school district.

Lovejoy defended his actions due to his concern about the future of education for Wakonda students.

"We're not out to close or lock the doors of Wakonda School," he said. "That's not the objective. We're for progress, but it's got to be done in the right way. We're not out to destroy the community, either. That's not anybody's goal and I don't think anyone should look at it that way. I don't hold anything against anybody if they aren't in favor of what we're doing. That's their personal right. We've had people call and thank us for what we're doing and we've had people swear at us. But I don't want enemies because of this.

"I think this petition calls for the combination or consolidation with other schools so we can get some better class offerings for the kids," Lovejoy continued. "This petition makes the school board present something to the voters � an option that was never, ever proposed before � the possibility of consolidating or attaching to another school district."

Flynn is concerned with how petition signers perceived its meaning.

"I think some people who signed it were misled as to the intent of the petition," he said. I really don't think they realized that the petition calls to dissolve the Wakonda School District. Some people may not have signed it if they better understood what it meant."

Flynn also has reservations about the idea of consolidation.

"About five or six years ago we had discussions with Gayville-Volin," he said. "Everybody seems to think it would be nice to have smaller school districts get together. But the big stumbling block comes when you ask where will the kids go?That's where it always seems to fall apart."

Lovejoy also requested Monday night that the school board members "put the building project on hold" while they work on the reorganization plan.

"I would like to request at this time that the board put the building project on hold ? Let's not use the building as a bargaining chip in our reorganization efforts," he said to the board.

Following Lovejoy's statement, the school board acknowledged his comments and the petitions. Lovejoy, however, was disappointed that no further action was taken. His mother, Darlene, who also attended the meeting, offered her opinion of the outcome: "They plan on building anyway," she said.

On Tuesday, school board member Van Moser assessed the situation.

"At present there's been no direction given by board to make any changes in the development of the building project," Moser said. "We haven't let any contracts so there really isn't that obligation out there, but we're not putting a hold on the architect's design of it. We're proceeding with that aspect and dealing with the petition situation as another project simultaneously."

Flynn plans to meet with the state secretary of education for advice on how to proceed with the reorganization plan. In the meantime, Moser cannot predict what type of reorganization plan will result.

"We are, by statute, forced into developing a reorganization plan, but it's too premature to make a prediction as to what it will be," he said. "There's a lot of different options but the board hasn't taken any direction — we all have our own personal ideas — but board as whole hasn't had an opportunity to make a decision."

Moser added that the process will probably move quickly.

"We have 180 days, but I doubt if it will take that long," he said. "We probably will be moving fairly quickly on it because it's kind of like a cloud over your head � can we really proceed while knowing this is out there?

But looking ahead, he's confident that the two projects � building and reorganization � can both be done.

"As a board member I feel very strongly that we're still representing 59 percent of the people who want to see something done," he said about the construction. "That was the philosophy I took when we passed the capital outlay certificates, and this (the petition) is just another little quirk in the process. It's unfortunate but that's the prerogative set by state statute. But I really don't see this as a major setback. We plan to proceed with this situation and respond to it like we have to according to statutory requirements. We're going to take one day at a time and do what have to do and at this time we're proceeding with both of the situations."

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