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Fort Washakie wins approval for K-12 state school system

May 2, 2012 - By Christina George Staff Writer

The Wyoming State Board of Education has approved Fremont County School District 21's request to be unified into a kindergarten-through-12th-grade education system, paving the way for a full-fledged Fort Washakie High School.

The board gave its unanimous approval to the unification plan on April 27 in Gillette.

"I feel like we have finally made some progress, and it feels good," Fort Washakie Charter High School principal Shad Hamilton said. "There is still a whole lot more work to come, but this is a big step forward in the right direction and a long time coming."

The change takes effect July 1.

School District 21 has attempted unification in the past, but the main obstacle has been meeting the 500-student enrollment requirement. The district reached the enrollment obligation last fall and started the process again.

Only Arapahoe left

Before last week's decision, Fort Washakie was one of two K-8 school districts remaining in Wyoming. The other is School District 38 at Arapahoe.

Fort Washakie currently operates a charter high school to offer educational opportunities for students who do not wish to attend another school in nearby districts including Lander, Pavillion and Riverton.

The recent decision will also affect School District 21's upcoming building project.

New building planned

Fort Washakie is scheduled for a new 104,000-square-foot facility to the tune of $25 million. Additional funding was put on hold for another 20,000 square feet in the event unification was achieved.

"They can now move forward with the project with a K-12 facility," Hamilton said.

Unification will not change the school district's boundary lines, the assessed value or existing personnel positions.

It will, however, merge the district and charter high school boards into one.

Before the request could go before the state board, Fort Washakie had to submit a petition to the Fremont County Boundary Board with 100 signatures from registered voters who reside in School District 21 in addition to achieving the enrollment requirement.

The boundary board, which is comprised of county commissioners, County Assessor Tara Berg and County Treasurer Scott Harnsberger, held a public meeting at the school last month to hear from the community about the proposal.

In April, the boundary board sent a letter to the state board supporting Fort Washakie's unification effort.

According to School District 21's request, "the reorganization would provide an improved and more equalized educational opportunity for all pupils."

"It will give the resident students of FCSD#21 an equal opportunity for a complete, quality education within their own district," the request reads.

Officials attended

Hamilton said a large group of Fort Washakie supporters attended the Gillette meeting, including himself, superintendent Richard McClements, school board chairman Tex LeClair, board member Clinton Wagon, Fort Washakie Charter High School board member David Snyder, teacher and former student Iva LeClair, district attorney Scott Kolpitcke, charter teacher Mike Read and high school student Willow Pingree.

There were a few who spoke, Hamilton said, including Pingree.

"He had a couple of the state board members in tears," Hamilton said. "I think he really spoke about the equality (issue). The board chairman commented to him something to the effect that he is wise beyond his years."

Hamilton said Pingree is a fifth-year student who has attended high school outside the school district and knows the downsides to not being at a school in your own community.

Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill also spoke at the meeting in favor of Fort Washakie's request, Hamilton said.

Hamilton has been at Fort Washakie Charter High School since its inception in 2003, and says he knows the importance of having a permanent high school.

"I went to school in Riverton and grew up by Arapahoe," he said. "I have always recognized the need for a permanent high school. That's part of how I got involved out here."

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