Consolidation approved by Wakonda, Irene voters

Consolidation approved by Wakonda, Irene voters
In recent years, the Irene and Wakonda school districts have shared many things � administrators, staff members and even sports teams.

On Tuesday, the two districts became one by way of the ballot box.

In separate elections, Irene and Wakonda voters overwhelmingly approved consolidation. The Irene-Wakonda district comes into existence July 1, 2007. Irene patrons approved the merger 198-25 with 30 percent voter turnout. Wakonda likewise gave the green light 216-53 with 36 percent voter turnout.

The election drew interest far beyond the two districts. A number of schools, as well as state officials, watched the results which could set off activity by other districts interested in consolidation.

Superintendent Larry Johnke, who serves both districts, said both school boards were "very pleased" with the election results. Both schools enroll fewer than 200 students and were feeling the pressure of declining state aid and tougher state graduation requirements, he said.

"We are working hard to give the best education we can. It's been getting to be a struggle," Johnke said. "I think people realized it was going to be easier to provide opportunities and greatly enhance things if we went together (as one district)."

The new Irene-Wakonda district will enroll a projected 319 students in 2007-08 and cover 248 square miles with $183 million valuation. The merger plan calls for a $150,000 opt-out for five years if needed for the transition period. The new district will also receive consolidation incentive funds from the state over a three-year period.

Johnke said he was pleased with Tuesday's resounding approval at the polls � 89 percent in Irene and 80 percent in Wakonda � and figured the voter turnout was right on target.

"We figured they would come somewhere in the 20 to 40 percent range," he said. "I think those who didn't come out and vote were hopefully the silent ?yes' vote, too."

The sharing between the two schools during the past four years proved crucial in Tuesday's passage, Johnke said.

"I think the people saw the benefit. They saw the opportunities that gave a lot of kids a little more of a competitive edge," he said. "People in the two communities got to know each other, to know what each other was doing. We did so many things together."

The Irene and Wakonda boards also worked well together, Johnke said. "The boards did a lot of hard work. They have been going at this (merger plan) for two to 2 1/2 years. They have talked it up, which helped."

The future begins now, Johnke said. The current school boards will close out the existing districts over the next year, while a new Irene-Wakonda school board will hopefully be elected in December, he said. The new board could be seated in January to begin the transition and planning for the new district.

With Clay County as Irene-Wakonda's county of jurisdiction, that county's auditor will conduct the new board election, Johnke said. The five-member board will consist of members elected from districts based on population. The new school board will include two members from the old Irene district, two members from the old Wakonda district and one member representing an area combining land from both old districts.

Johnke envisions joint board meetings over the next year, drawing together the 15 people on the old and new boards. The Irene-Wakonda board will make hiring decisions for the new district and will decide whether to retain current staff members or open up positions, he said.

"Most boards, when they reorganize, do a survey if (staff members) want to stay," he said. "Hitchcock-Tulare and Britton-Hecla basically took what they had within the district and went with that. But this is a new board (at Irene-Wakonda)."

Some of the major decisions will involve preparing the facilities for their new roles, Johnke said. The Irene facility will house the secondary school for grades 7-12 while Wakonda will house the elementary school for grades K-6.

The Irene-Wakonda district will benefit from the new facilities at both locations, Johnke said. The school boards made an early commitment to maintain attendance enters in both communities, he said.

The Irene school has all of the needed facilities, while plans call for an addition at Wakonda, Johnke said. The new addition, slated for a 2008 completion, would include five classrooms, a kitchen and lunchroom. The gymnasiums at both schools will be used for games and other events.

"There is a lot of elementary stuff we have to take over to Wakonda, and a lot of 7-12 stuff to take to Irene, so we will have a very busy next summer," Johnke said.

Johnke has found strong interest in the Irene-Wakonda consolidation. He received questions during last week's appearance on a panel in Pierre following a state-aid task force meeting.

Even before Tuesday's vote, Irene and Wakonda patrons were asking about the possibility of adding more schools to the merger, Johnke said.

"Would we take in more schools? That's a question we were asked at all four public meetings (in Irene and Wakonda). My best guess: I don't know," he said. "A lot of it does depend on what the state does (for education) and the economy in the southeast corner of South Dakota � if Yankton grows, if Vermillion grows, if Sioux Falls grows this way."

The new school district will offer a strong attraction for economic development, Johnke predicted.

"People are willing to drive 30 miles (to work in regional centers)," he said. "If anybody is going to survive, it will be this corridor between Highway 81 and I-29. Both of our communities feel this is the way to go in the future."

Tuesday's election went a long way toward building for the future and the communities controlling their own destiny, Johnke said. He said his feelings were reinforced after hearing state education proposals during last week's task force meeting in Pierre.

"By doing this, we have solidified our position for years to come," he said. "I don't have a crystal ball, but I feel a whole lot better than going into this as two separate districts."

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