Irene, Wakonda explore school consolidation

Irene, Wakonda explore school consolidation
Patrons in the Irene and Wakonda school districts could head to the polls later this year to decide whether they want to consolidate beginning with the 2007-08 school year.

The two school boards have jointly sponsored public meetings � last week in Irene and Tuesday night in Wakonda � to lay out a proposed consolidation plan. The individual boards will decide whether to accept and send a final version to the state Department of Education for approval, then hold separate elections which must be passed by the majority of voters in each district.

Under state law, consolidation must be finalized by March 1, 2007, for the new Irene-Wakonda district to come into existence July 1, 2007, and to start classes in fall 2007, said Larry Johnke, superintendent for both the Irene and Wakonda districts. "Irene and Wakonda can't last five years (apart) without a horrendous opt-out or cuts," Johnke said. "We can survive if we work together. We just have to decide how to do it."

If the two districts do not merge, they face severe financial problems including loss of state aid, Johnke said. For example, Wakonda's K-12 enrollment will drop from 154 this year to 140 next year for a projected loss of $41,538 in state aid, he said.

And the situation could become fatal if the Legislature passes a package of bills amounting to "forced consolidation," Johnke said. A state-aid task force next meets April 17-18 in Pierre and will present bills by December for the 2007 Legislature, he said.

"The study is not for more money, just how better to spend state dollars that are there now," Johnke said. "They are looking at eliminating the small-school factor, which means $160,000 to Irene and $120,000 to Wakonda. Without the additional aid, you have to raise your taxes that much to stay even."

The small-school factor � which provides additional state aid for districts with fewer than 600 students � is definitely on the table as the task force draws up legislation, state Education Secretary Rick Melmer said in a Wednesday interview.

"If I was a superintendent, I would be thinking about what life would be like without the small-school factor in the formula," he said.

The Irene and Wakonda districts have shared administrators for four years, and the two boards have talked about consolidation for two years, Johnke said as the boards' spokesman at Tuesday's meeting. A combined school district with strong academics, activities and facilities would be a strong draw for new business and residents, Johnke said.

"We want both communities to have a chance to grow and prosper. I think that has to be our number 1 goal," he said. "The boards feel the southeast corner of the state, the I-29 corridor, is the only area besides the Black Hills to grow. The areas close to I-29 are growing and spreading. We feel there is a future for Wakonda and Irene."

While a patron expressed concern if a merger could be completed by next spring, Melmer said a year should provide adequate time for

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passing a consolidation plan. Melmer noted the schools have already shared administrators, and he believes the Irene and Wakonda districts have taken the right path in their discussions.

"That's the ideal case, to have the time like a courtship with two communities sorting things out. There are a lot of details that need to be ironed out," Melmer said. "In an ideal world, it would last two or three years, period. My concern is that districts wait too long to begin talking about it, where it becomes urgent."

The new board would make staffing and other decisions for the new district, Johnke said. The current school boards would be dissolved and the new five-member school board, consisting of districts, would serve three-year terms but start with staggered terms, he added. A combined school district could offer more courses to meet the stricter state graduation requirements, particularly in math, science and foreign languages, Johnke said.

The districts must also deal with the federal No Child Left Behind program, he said. Under the reorganization plan, the new district would cover 284 square miles with a valuation of $183 million. The new district would operating at first on a $2.4 million general fund.

"For consolidation, we would get state incentive funds of $300 per student the first year, $200 per student the second year and $100 per student the third year," Johnke said. "That's for up to 400 students, and the money comes one year behind."

The new district would enroll a projected 317 students in 2007-08 � both districts have stable elementary enrollment � and operate grades K-6 in Wakonda and grades 7-12 in Irene. Both gymnasiums would be used for games.

"The board felt very strongly for the need for both communities to maintain an educational facility for the future of each community," Johnke said. "People ask, why not one building at one site? But you would need to construct a building, then you would need new sewer with EPA regulations, new security lighting and your insurance would be higher."

Using the existing facilities provides the most cost-efficient way, Melmer said. "The center of the argument is usually who gets the high school. Hamlin is an example of that. It was built miles out in the country, between different communities," he said. "It's a good example of the down side, that no community gets to benefit from it. If the school was in a community, the kids would go to the convenience store and those sorts of things. Now, everybody is traveling.

"The major argument is that no community wins unless everybody gives a little bit," Melmer added.

While the new district would combine assets and liabilities, state law requires the original districts to pay their current indebtedness � $195,270, paid off in 2008, for Irene; and $975,000, paid off in 2021, for Wakonda. The two boards have proposed a $150,000 annual opt-out for five years to cover transition costs, only if needed, Johnke said. Currently, Irene has a $100,000 opt-out for five years while Wakonda has a $150,000 opt-out for unlimited years.

Those opt-outs would end with the creation of a new district. The new district would be staffed by an administration consisting of a superintendent, secondary principal, elementary principal, business manager and technology coordinator. The elementary staff would use one teacher for up to 28 students in K-3 and one teacher for up to 31 students in grades 4-6. Additional sections would be created if classes become larger than those figures.

"Our guess is that we would cut six elementary positions and 2 to 2 1/2 staff positions for grades 7-12. That depends on the new board," Johnke said.

Regardless of what residents decide, Wakonda and Irene are engaged in a healthy discussion about their futures, Melmer said. "I am glad they are able to have this conversation," he said. "I hope people will be supportive, and they move in the right direction."

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