The public meeting in Wakonda marked the last formal gathering before Irene and Wakonda patrons vote next Tuesday on a reorganization plan. If the plan receives a majority vote in both districts, the new Irene-Wakonda school district begins its existence July 1, 2007.
"If this passes, we hope to have a school board election by December 2006, so they can begin the transition to the new school district in January 2007," said Larry Johnke, the superintendent for both the Irene and Wakonda districts.
Johnke explained and answered questions about the proposed merger plan worked out by the two boards over the past two years. But many of the questions at Tuesday night's meeting were about details out of the local boards' control.
Patrons asked about the direction of the school-aid formula in the Legislature. They asked about the strength of a new school district, particularly future enrollment. And they asked what an Irene-Wakonda school board would do about facilities � including the demolition of current buildings.
If voters defeat the reorganization plan next Tuesday, the school districts will stay separate and can expect to continue losing state aid because of declining enrollment, Johnke said.
"We have been underfunded since the (state-aid) formula started in 1996," he said. "Even if we get more state aid per year, we are losing students and can't keep up. We will continue losing money."
"What if we consolidate and still continue losing students every year?" a man in the audience asked.
The two districts, if combined, should stabilize in enrollment in three years, Johnke said. The class sizes
will remain at 21 to 25 students, he said.
"If we settle at those numbers, we will be able to maintain more variety of courses (for state requirements)," he said. "If we remain separate, we will stay with classes of 10, 12 and 14 students. Then we will have to do some cutting."
Johnke noted many answers could come out of this week's state-aid task force meeting in Pierre. The task force must present a package of bills later this year for the 2007 Legislature, he said.
Johnke said he planned to attend the meeting, scheduled for Thursday.
Secretary of Education Rick Melmer has already talked about the elimination of a 20 percent bonus, known as the small-school factor, paid to schools with enrollment similar to Irene and Wakonda, Johnke said.
"On the state Department of Education Web site, they are talking about a three-year phase-out of the small-school factor," he said. "That would mean a loss of $168,000 for both Irene and Wakonda. They are talking about that going away in three years."
One patron asked about the potential for success of a planned lawsuit against the state by nearly 60 school districts, including Irene and Wakonda. The lawsuit would seek more state education funding.
"I think we are going to win, but it will be four or five years before we are successful," Johnke said. "Whatever side wins, the other side will appeal and it will go the Supreme Court."
The Legislature could have funded education by another $100 million without raising taxes but chose not to do so, Johnke said. "School funding isn't keeping up with state spending. The state gets a 5 to 8 percent increase a year, while schools get 3 percent or less," he said.
Looking at the Irene-Wakonda plan, the new school district would maintain a K-6 elementary facility in Wakonda and a secondary facility in Irene for grades 7-12, Johnke said. The assignment of grades was based on available facilities, he said. Both schools' gyms would be used equally for practices and contests, he said.
The boards decided to keep an attendance center in both communities, Johnke said. "The boards made it a priority. They felt both communities needed to keep a facility in each community for growth in those towns," he said.
Both districts currently have an opt-out, which would end if a new district is formed, Johnke said. The two boards have proposed implementing a $150,000 opt-out for five years, if needed, to meet transition costs for the new district.
The change to a new district would drop the opt-out levy by 34 percent for current Irene patrons and 44 percent for current Wakonda patrons, Johnke said.
Each school district has indebtedness � Irene with $195,270 for a 1993 addition, paid in 2008, and Wakonda with $975,000 for a 2003 addition, paid in 2021. The original district pays those amounts.
The Irene-Wakonda school district would receive three years of incentive money from the state for reorganization, Johnke said. The new district would receive $300 per student, up to 400 students, in the first year; $200 per student in the second year and $100 per student in the third year.
As for facilities, the boards have recommended shutting down or demolishing facilities if needed, Johnke said. However, such decisions would lie in the hands of the new Irene-Wakonda school board, he said.
Some school districts have given buildings to the city or a community group, he added.
The new school district would maintain a total of six bus routes, for a maximum bus ride of one hour, Johnke said. A short shuttle ride would take students between attendance centers, he said.
The school board would continue to consist of five members, Johnke said. The merger proposal draws two board members from each of the current Irene and Wakonda districts and a fifth member from a combined area.
The school-district election boundaries would change after each federal census. Currently, each proposed district has about 450 residents.
The merger plan sought to provide the strongest possible school district, Johnke said.
"We want to give the best education to our kids, but that's getting harder every year," he said. "If we don't go through with this (merger), we will be looking at larger opt-outs and more cuts."
In that case, the boards couldn't make immediate cuts because of contractual agreements, but they could look at more cuts the following year, Johnke said.
"Why not just cut sports instead of reading, writing and ?rithmetic?" one patron asked.
While cutting sports would be popular with some people, it would cost the district more in the long run than the money saved by eliminating the sport, Johnke said.
"We could cut football, but then you would lose 10 students to open enrollment. Every program that you've got would be like that � it's just a matter of what your losses would be," Johnke said. "Open enrollment has put a new wrinkle to this. In the past, a student would have to pay tuition. The family would say, ?This will cost me $5,700, I can't afford it.' Now, they can just pack up the kids (and transfer)."
Cutting academics would mean a further loss of students, Johnke said.
"We won't cut reading, writing and arithmetic, because those are the basics. And we won't cut what the state says we need," he said. "But we will look at electives. Even then, you have to be concerned about open enrollment and the students you would lose."
After the meeting, a patron asked if a third or even fourth school district could be added to an Irene-Wakonda consolidation. Johnke said other districts have been approached but did not show interest at this time. Viborg has stable enrollment, Centerville recently passed an opt-out and Gayville-Volin wants to remain on its own, he said.
Johnke asked Irene and Wakonda patrons to vote in Tuesday's election � by absentee ballot, if necessary � and make the best long-term decision for education.
"Nobody knows what will happen in 10 years or 20 years, but we have to do what's best for our children," he said.