Wakonda School Board rejects petition

Wakonda School Board rejects petition Wakonda School Superintendent Ron Flynn by M. Jill Karolevitz A petition to dissolve the Wakonda School District was rejected by the Wakonda School Board Monday night, July 23, during a special meeting that lasted less than 5 minutes.

Presented to the school board July 9 by Mike Lovejoy, rural Wakonda, the petition 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."

Only 15 percent of the registered voters in the district needed to sign the petition (124) in order for it to be valid. A total of 154 signatures initially were gathered, but after a verification process carried out by school business manager Carol Mayer, that number dropped to 108.

"There were two duplicate signatures, seven ineligible voters and 38 who requested that their name be removed," she said Monday night before a small crowd that gathered for the meeting in the old gym. A motion to reject the petition was unanimously approved by the school board and the meeting was adjourned.

"The ball is back in his (Lovejoy's) court now," school board president Van Moser said after the meeting. "The petition fell short of the required number of signatures."

Lovejoy can, however, circulate another petition.

"If he comes forward with another petition, we'll have to go through the process of validation again," Moser said.

Lovejoy first plans to meet with his attorney.

"I'm going to find out if what they did tonight is legal," Lovejoy said when the meeting was over. "This may have to be determined in court � whether this is a legal form of resignation from the petition."

Lovejoy was referring to the 38 signatures that were dropped from the petition as the result of a concerned citizen campaign that began after the Wakonda School Board met Friday night, July 20.

"I feel that these people took their names off under duress," Lovejoy said. "We got 154 signatures of people who put their faith in us and signed the petition. But now we need to seek the next legal route and I'll take it to my attorney."

Not only will he seek information about how names can be removed, Lovejoy also intends to clarify when names can legally be removed from a petition. State Election Supervisor Chris Nelson told the Yankton Press & Dakotan that a person cannot rescind his signature after the petition is filed. That's where the gray area lies � in the definition of "filed."

"When a petitioner presents the petition, the language is

complete once the entity responds back to the verification of the petition," Moser said. "It's a two-part thing. First it's presented, then verified, and once the verification is complete, then filing is complete."

Lovejoy disagrees.

"The commissioner of election says it's filed when you hand the petition to them," he said. "There is to be no jostling about of names. The state advises that when you turn it over, it's filed at that point. Otherwise he said, how would it ever end?"

Lovejoy's lawyer, Tom Frieberg of Beresford, is on vacation, however, so he will be unable to take any further action until Frieberg returns to his office.

Tony Skonhovd, one of about 10 people who spoke to people about removing their names from the petition, contested the document Friday night. He said Monday that "there were too many untruths" told as the petition was originally circulated.

"People were told it was a petition for consolidation, or to stop the construction (of a new elementary addition)," Skonhovd said. "Some of them said they didn't even read it and it clearly states that it's for the dissolving of the district."

The school board met in special session to discuss the petition July 20 in the old gym. A motion by the school board to accept the petition failed � even after the school's attorney recommended that it be approved and accepted, according to a statement made by Superintendent Ron Flynn. During the ensuing discussion, members of the audience raised several questions regarding the validity of the petition.

One woman noted that Wakonda School District's number is 13-2. The petition, however, reads 63-1.

"Our lawyer says since it says Wakonda School District, the intent is there, so the 63-1 can be overlooked," said school board member Jim Morrison. "With a petition you have a lot of leeway."

Skonhovd and others asked if signers could be contacted to see if they would like to remove their names from the petition if they didn't realize that it meant dissolving the school district.

"We (the school board) are not going to do that," Morrison said. "But if someone wants to ?"

Flynn cautioned the general public that school officials would not tolerate harassing people to remove their names.

"We emphasize that under no circumstances should a person be harassed or intimidated to have their name taken off," he said. "We will not condone intimidation."

Morrison added that the petitioner could also go out and get more signatures to re-attain the required number, so contacting signers "may be a futile effort."

That was not the case, however, by Monday night, as 38 people requested that their names be removed after being contacted by concerned citizens.

Judi Sharples of Wakonda said Friday night that she hoped the petitioners would "just remove the petition," she said.

"It's tyranny of the minority," she added. "As a taxpayer I'm concerned about how much this process is going to cost the school district and how it is destroying our community. If only 15 percent are needed to get the petition through and the bond issue nearly passed three times � missing by an eyelash each time � that shows how much support this school has."

As if to back up Sharples' statements about community support of the school, counselor Cheryl Knudson shared information she had gathered about how well Wakonda School students do academically.

With 50 as an average statewide score on the Stanford Achievement Tests, Wakonda students in fourth, eighth and 11th grades average 67.9, Knudson noted. Wakonda High School graduates have also ranked high in the SD Board of Regents Freshman Ranking by GPA � ninth in 1997, 17th in 1998, and 12th in 1999.

"Wakonda is the only school in the state to be in the top 20 for three consecutive years," Knudson said.

The closest school was Irene, at 20th in 1999. Vermillion ranked 70th, 48th and 49th in 1997, 1998 and 1999, respectively.

"This data clearly shows that the best quality education for our students is right here at Wakonda School," Knudson said. The audience responded with resounding applause.

Ray Woods of Wakonda added his opinion.

"Why don't we just draw back and appoint a steering committee to look at consolidation, reorganization, building a new school or just building a computer room or adding a couple new rooms," he said. "It's unfair to raise taxes and it's unfair to sign the petition to close the school district. Let's put our heads together and find a compromise."

Following Monday night's meeting, Mayer shook her head at the process and its resulting reaction.

"I think the whole state is watching us," she said. "This may set a precedent for small schools across the state and that's sad. We don't want to be a springboard for that kind of negative change. If we were failing in some way � money, test scores � then I'd look at it differently. But we're doing well. I would like to see the petition withdrawn. They (the petitioners) have seen that we have a lot of support for this school and that would be the right thing to do."

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