Vote scheduled in Wakonda to decide district dissolution

Vote scheduled in Wakonda to decide district dissolution by David Lias A Feb. 12 election is scheduled in the Wakonda School District to decide if the district should be dissolved and attached to Vermillion.

If approved by at least 50 percent of the voters, the Wakonda district would cease to exist June 30 and become part of the Vermillion district.

Vermillion Superintendent Robert Mayer noted last month that there are 13 requirements that must be met, according to state law, to formulate a dissolution plan.

Wakonda and Vermillion school officials, he said, have successfully met those requirements.

Apparently, the state of South Dakota also agrees with that assessment.

South Dakota Secretary of Education Ray Christensen approved the dissolution plan and set the election date.

Janelle Toman, public affairs director of the state Department of Education and Cultural Affairs, said Christensen determined the plan met all 13

points required for reorganization.

"If this is approved (by voters), the name would remain as Vermillion because this is not a new district," Toman said, according to the Associated Press.

The plan's requirements include maps of the proposed school district, a listing of proposed attendance centers, a description of the proposed facilities, bus routes, and legal descriptions of district boundaries.

Mayer also had gathered the enrollment figures of the two districts � 184 students in Wakonda and 1,381 in Vermillion, and financial information, including the assessed valuation of both districts and outstanding general obligations of bonds and school accounts.

The Vermillion School Board has already approved the dissolution plan.

Under state law, the plan needs approval from the school board of the receiving district but not its voters.

A group of Wakonda patrons petitioned for dissolution last year. They said enrollment had grown too small to offer a quality education.

The district enrolls 188 students in K-12, including 10 foreign-exchange students.

The petitioners also cited the expense of running the district and the possible loss of more students and state aid through open enrollment.

On the other hand, district supporters said local students benefit from the smaller classes.

They argued the Wakonda schools offer a variety of courses with the help of distance learning, and students earn high achievement and college-entrance test scores.

They also argued that dissolution will kill Wakonda, and students will face long bus rides to other attendance sites.

A building project for a K-4 addition, city-school library and remodeling of the 1922 school has been put on hold until after the election.

Three bond issues fell just short of the 60 percent majority for passage.

The Wakonda experience is providing a lesson, Toman said, noting only four other school dissolutions in the past 15 years.

"This isn't something that happens very often in South Dakota," Toman said.

One of the state's requirements is to formulate a proposed detailed budget.

"We propose to increase the current Vermillion School District budget by three percent in expenditures, and increase state aid revenues also by three percent," Mayer said last month.

Vermillion administrators also would calculate what the cost of maintaining a kindergarten through fifth grade elementary school in Wakonda would be, and any revenues from the additions to the Wakonda district.

"Whether one is maintained there or not, you almost have to include it in costs," Mayer said. "Because otherwise if it happens and you don't include it costs, then you don't have it in your budget.

"I'm not saying you should have one; you'll have to decide that particular thing relative to the plan," he told Vermillion School Board members at a meeting held shortly before the Christmas holiday.

Approximately one-third of the Wakonda School District's students are in kindergarten through fifth grade.

"If the K-5 center is maintained, would it be fair to say that most of those would stay, and open enrollment would occur later on?" asked Vermillion school board member Nick Merrigan.

"It would probably depend on if they had older brothers and sisters and they went somewhere else," Wakonda Superintendent Ron Flynn said. "I would think that the people that lived in town more than likely would stay there if they had kids in K-5."

Flynn told Vermillion board members that Wakonda board members haven't been promoting an attendance center in Wakonda as part of the dissolution plan, in part, because they thought it might make the Vermillion district less apt to agree to the plan.

"We didn't really want people voting for the plan with the idea that there would be an elementary attendance center there for any definite length of time," Flynn said. "I guess my feeling is that if there was one there, it would only be there for a very short number of years."

The Wakonda School Board has tried three times to pass a bond issue to fund a building improvement project on the present Wakonda facility.

Each time, the bond elections failed by a handful of votes, prompting the Wakonda board to seek building improvements through the use of capital outlay funds.

Those plans were challenged earlier this year, however, when Mike Lovejoy, a patron of the Wakonda district, collected enough signatures on petitions to call for the dissolution of the Wakonda district and its attachment to another district.

In November, the Wakonda School Board agreed that the Wakonda district should attach to the Vermillion district.

Citizens of the Wakonda district will have the final say on the plan approved Monday night. People residing in the Vermillion School District will not vote on the proposal.

Mayer said he received a bit of good news after talking to officials with the state Department of Education.

It had been assumed that the dissolution plan wouldn't make the Vermillion district eligible for any consolation incentive funds. Local school officials also believed that the small-school factor, which provides more state aid dollars for Wakonda, would be lost with the joining of the two districts.

"I talked to Pierre, and they are treating this like a consolidation," Mayer said. "We would get to keep the small-school factor for three years. We would also have the consolidation incentive payment for three years, with $400 a student the first year, $200 a student the second year, and $100 a student the third year."

The Vermillion district would receive about $500,000 in additional state aid based on 125 Wakonda students, Mayer said. Also, the consolidation incentives would cover not only Wakonda students but the 1,380 Vermillion students as well.

The 188 students attending the Wakonda schools include 10 foreign exchange students, Flynn said. He added that if the Wakonda district is dissolved, the new Vermillion district likely would lose some Wakonda students to open enrollment, particularly those who live northwest of Wakonda.

"This year's kindergarten could have been 19, based on the number of children of that age living in the district, but we started with 14," Flynn said. "We have two who were home schooled and three who are attending school elsewhere."

There has been little fluctuation in Wakonda's enrollment in recent years.

"In most cases, our classes consist of 12 to 14 kids, but we do have two classes in K-5 with fewer than 10 students," he said.

The Wakonda district should have $1 million remaining after its bills are paid, Flynn said. The dissolution plan resolves the assets and liabilities, with any excess going into the new district.

The Wakonda school board wants the dissolution election soon to resolve staffing for the 2002-03 term. Vermillion is considering its own budget cuts, including possible reductions in force and an opt-out election.

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