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Fort Washakie unification gets county nod

Fort Washakie unification gets county nod

Apr 5, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

Fremont County officials unanimously approved sending Fort Washakie school district's application for a K-12 system for state consideration.

The Fremont County Boundary Board's decision allows Fremont County School District 21 leaders to make their request at the Wyoming Board of Education's meeting April 27 in Gillette.

Combining high school and grades K-8 into a single district would mean more funding and better educational opportunities for students, district officials said.

"We're not trying to take money from anybody else," district board member Clint Wagon told the boundary committee consisting of commissioners, Treasurer Scott Harnsberger and Assessor Tara Berg.

"We're not trying to take services from anybody else. We're just trying to be on the same playing field," Wagon said.

The attempt is the second time the school district has sought unification. Previously, the district failed to meet the state's required 500-student enrollment. During Tuesday's meeting, district superintendent Richard McClements said the enrollment that day was 502.

"When we filed our petition with you, that day we were at 501," McClements said.

The boundary board's action followed a public hearing that solicited public comment about the proposal March 26 at Fort Washakie School.

"The public hearing was a very beautiful and very moving experience," McClements said.

Although the boundary board members unanimously endorsed sending the application to the state committee, they expressed concerns about the proposal.

Harnsberger noted the 10 high schools already in the county.

"I think with our population, that seems a little high to me," he said.

He compared the situation in Fort Washakie with discussions about closing the Jeffrey City grade school and busing the handful of students to Lander for their education.

Fort Washakie's unification would continue to allow students to choose where they could attend high school -- with some just a few miles from town -- while Jeffrey City students would face significant distances to get their education, Harnsberger said.

"I think that's a little bit of a problem," he said.

Harnsberger suggested consolidating the Fort Washakie and Wyoming Indian school districts to overcome transportation costs and other issues.

"The one mission, one board issue would be resolved by consolidation," he said.

Berg noted concerns with the district hiring high school teachers in anticipation of students who may decide to go elsewhere for their education.

"I would caution everybody on the fiscal responsibility," she said.

Commission vice chairman Pat Hickerson said he has heard complaints about a perceived excessive educational administrative overhead in Fremont County, which has the most school districts in the state.

"That argument is out there -- we have too many school districts than anywhere else in the state," he said.

Hickerson said some students graduating from eighth grade may not be ready to advance to a high school in another town and would want to stay near home.

"For that reason, I'm also going to support your application and wish you luck," he said.

Commission chairman Doug Thompson said the state board will likely express its own concern about students going to other towns to attend high school. He suggested the Fort Washakie district leaders prepare to address the topic.

Wagon responded to some of the concerns, saying that consolidation was an issue previously addressed by the state.

"Having these kinds of discussions, to me, is going back in time," he said.

He said there are 11 other school districts smaller than Fort Washakie's that are unified from grades K-12.

"We're one of two K-8 districts in the state," he said, referring to Fremont County School District 38 in Arapahoe.

"Ever since the high school has been part of the district as a partner, we've always had that same certification (with the grade school)," Wagon said. "The thing that I think we all need to do in this county is to have better partnerships, especially in education."

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