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Riverton/Shoshoni school merger suggested
Oct 3, 2012 - By Randy Tucker, Staff Writer
A motion to merge was defeated 3-2 by the Wyoming School Facilities Commission.
Wyoming is in a unique position when it comes to school construction.
In surrounding states and across much of the nation, a new school means a local ballot initiative followed by years or even decades of increased taxes to cover the cost of construction.
In Wyoming, the state covers nearly the entire cost of new building construction, and the process is monitored by the Wyoming School Facilities Commission.
Riverton, Lander, Dubois and Arapahoe schools have gone through the process in recent years with varying degrees of difficulty, and now it is Shoshoni's turn.
Shoshoni has the oldest active school building in Fremont County, with multiple construction dates going back to the first major project in 1937. Portions of the existing school have been in place since the early 1900s.
Shoshoni is now within a three-year window of getting a new school constructed on vacant land just to the north and west of the town's boundaries.
After considerable work by members of the Fremont County School District 24 Board of Trustees and Shoshoni administration, the process to get construction funding approval seemed to be nearly finalized when a surprising discussion occurred at the Sept. 20 SFC meeting.
Discussion at the meeting moved to Shoshoni's projected future K-12 enrollment of an estimated 540 students.
The 540 number is derived from a methodology established by the Wyoming Legislature to estimate future school population. In many schools constructed under previous models there was inadequate classroom space the day the new school opened, necessitating either additional construction or the placement of modular units on the newly constructed campuses.
In Shoshoni's case, current enrollment of 351 students was coupled with an estimated annual growth rate of 6 percent to 8 percent. In addition, enrollment was calculated for 2020 -- five years after construction is estimated to be complete in 2015.
"We're very pleased that we're able to get the 540 students as approved by the methodology set by the legislation," District 24 business manager Kay Watson said. "We're pleased to be moving forward."
That sentiment was not shared by SFC member Pete Jorgensen, a retired engineer and former Teton County legislator appointed to the SFC by Gov. Matt Mead. Jorgensen opened opposition to the plan with the question, "Why does Shoshoni need a high school?"
Discussion ensued, and Jorgensen moved to deny the 540-student number for Shoshoni.
Jorgensen's motion failed 3-2, but it brought up an underlying movement within the SFC and in the upcoming legislative session.
"There are too many districts building new buildings that as soon they move in they are too small," Jorgensen said. "That's why the methodology was approved last year. ... The SFC was not prepared for this."
He said $1.5 billion was allocated for school construction, and the SFC already has approved more than $2 billion in expenditures.
"We just purchased land for a new K-12 in Shoshoni, too much land for what's being built," Jorgensen said.
Shoshoni made extensive preparation for the SFC meeting, with detailed maps displaying the physical location of every student in the district. This detailed analysis was appreciated by Jorgensen and the other members of the SFC, but it brought about unexpected consequences.
"I drive through Shoshoni all the time, and I don't see growth," Jorgensen said. "Because there are few people evident in Shoshoni, I wondered where the students came from. ... In looking at their data many of the dots where students lived were in the Riverton district or right on the boundary."
Shoshoni's apparent lack of growth was a concern for Jorgensen.
"I was in the Legislature when we funded the mushroom plant and the tank car facility, and there is no evidence that either one produced growth in the town," Jorgensen said.
A majority of District 24 students do live in the "Valley" -- the name Shoshoni staff and students have given to the area along Missouri Valley, Paradise Valley and Burma Road. Many students commute daily from Riverton and within the District 25 boundary.
"If the majority of the students live contiguous with Riverton, it's worth considering the high school students being served in Riverton," Jorgensen said. "It seems to me that students would be better prepared for the future in a high school with more offerings. It's an entirely different situation to have a good teacher versus an online experience that small schools use to fill their schedules."
Jorgensen said students have more opportunities at larger schools with additional classes and activities not available in Class 1-A or 2-A schools.
In response, someone asked Jorgensen why he thinks small schools such as Shoshoni, Dubois, Lusk and Burlington scored higher aggregate scores on standardized tests this year and have higher graduation rates than Casper, Gillette, Cheyenne or Rock Springs. Jorgensen said the answer has to do with each town's dedication to public school.
"We're talking about different populations in different districts," Jorgensen answered. "In these small schools, take Burlington for instance, it's a very tight-knit community. They value their schools, and the school is the center of the community."
Watson asked why Shoshoni would be held to a different standard when compared to other districts, and Jorgensen said Shoshoni was in a similar situation with Farson and Hanna.
"It's 41 miles from Farson to Rock Springs," he said. "When you look around Farson you don't see much. Wouldn't these students be better served if they went to school in Rock Springs?"
He pointed out that Rock Springs is only 13 miles from Green River.
"That brings up another question: Why (have) two high schools so close in Sweetwater County?" Jorgensen said.
School consolidation efforts spring up every generation or so in the state Legislature; state Sen. Hank Coe (R-Cody) of Park County mentioned consolidation recently during a public address in Cody.
Jorgensen said his question was not intended as a resolution for the Shoshoni situation.
"The source for our money, coal revenues, is trending downward, and the demand for new schools is unrelenting," he said. "I'm just trying to make sure we can pay for what we're building."
School consolidation will be on the agenda when the Legislature convenes in early 2013.
"Artificial political boundaries impact construction," Jorgensen said. "The fact that there are high school students from Riverton going to Shoshoni every day shows there is already cross-district travel. That's the avenue of questioning I was taking."
Many questions remain on the subject, with the principle question being how far is too far for a student to ride a bus to school?
"Dubois and Lusk are examples of distances that are just too far," Jorgensen said.
But Greybull and Basin, Lovell, Rocky Mountain and Burlington, Lingle, Torrington and Southeast Goshen, Mountain View and Lyman, Encampment and Saratoga, Big Horn and Tongue River, Upton and Newcastle are all as close or closer than Shoshoni is from Riverton.
"We did this 40 years ago, and we're about to do it again," Jorgensen said.