Irene-Wakonda merger faces changes

Irene-Wakonda merger faces changes
The Irene and Wakonda school districts need to clarify points in their consolidation plan before receiving state approval, a state official said May 2.

The state Education Department should soon finish its review of the plan, said spokeswoman Mary Stadick Smith. She declined to list the necessary changes until the review is complete.

"There needs to be a few minor tweaks," she said. "It is common that we ask for clarification, which is what we are doing in this case."

The Irene and Wakonda districts will need to re-submit the plan after making the required changes, Stadick Smith said. "Then our department will give it the final once-over," she said.

State Education Secretary Rick Melmer must approve the final plan. Then, a majority of voters in each school district must pass the plan in separate elections.

"Susan Woodmansey of our department will work with the local districts to get the election dates," Stadick Smith said.

The Wakonda and Irene school districts are no strangers to joint ventures. The districts have shared administrators for four years, and the boards have talked about consolidation for two years. The districts have also co-oped for athletic teams.

The two communities, each located about 25 miles north of Yankton, lie eight miles apart and have a combined population of less than 1,000 residents. An Irene-Wakonda district would enroll 317 students in 2007-08, according to current projections.

The boards jointly presented a merger plan about a month ago at public meetings in both communities. Each school board then approved a final plan, which was forwarded to Pierre.

Larry Johnke, superintendent for both the Irene and Wakonda districts, could not be reached for comment. However, he said at the Wakonda meeting that the boards want the new district in existence by July 1, 2007.

Under state law, the consolidation would need finalization by March 1, 2007, for the 2007-08 school year, Johnke said.

"The new school board for the new district will make staffing and other decisions," he said at the time. "Hopefully, they will be elected by December 2006 so they can begin work on the transition."

In a previous interview, Melmer said consolidation plans must follow a procedure set by statute.

"(Schools) have to identify and address 13 key areas in the plan. It's a fairly restrictive process," Melmer said. "You don't just whip it up on your own � you follow the script."

The plan must include school boundaries, attendance centers, bus routes, estimated school-age population, assessed valuation, assets and liabilities, and the county of jurisdiction.

In addition, the plan must include the official name of the proposed district, number of school board members, description of proposed educational programs and a reasonably-detailed budget for the new district.

Finally, the plan must include the recognition of requests for minor boundary changes and any additional information to show compliance with state standards.

A year should provide adequate time for Irene and Wakonda to meet their goal of consolidation for the 2007-08 school term, Melmer said. The schools already share administrators, he noted, adding 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," Melmer said. "There are a lot of details that need to be ironed out."

If Irene and Wakonda do not merge, they face severe financial problems, Johnke said at last month's meeting. 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.

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