The third-graders

Mar 16, 2012 By Steven R. Peck

The Wyoming Legislature is taking an assertive and positive step toward improving public education in the state by requiring that classrooms in our public schools have no more than 16 students for every teacher.

Fremont County School District 25 in Riverton could use some help in meeting it.

As often seems to happen with issues regarding education in Wyoming, different agencies seem to work at cross purposes.

In Riverton schools, third-grade students are having to be relocated from their longtime home bases in Jackson, Ashgrove and, more recently, Aspen Park elementary schools to Rendezvous School, which already houses fourth- and fifth-graders but is the only available building in the district that can handle the influx of about 150 kids.

The phrase "available building" is key to the problem. District 25 has other buildings, but the requirements of a different agency, the state school facilities commission, are such that they can't be used to meet the requirements of the 16:1 classroom rule.

Aspen Park Elementary was built when Lincoln School was abandoned. But Lincoln still stands, and it could accommodate the third-graders without undue strain. But the facilities commission says no, and Lincoln remains empty.

A large portion of the old Riverton High School building stands on West Main Street. In most people's memory, it served as the home of all Riverton sixth-graders after the new RHS was built. Many still refer to it as "the sixth-grade building." It now serves as an office building for a division of the Wyoming Department of Education, but it, too, would have space adequate for the third-graders. Again, the state says no.

Were the classroom shortage issue to be laid out to school district voters, they might well be willing to approve a bond issue to build a new elementary school. But that's also a no-no in the eyes of the state. Only the school facilities commission can build a new school.

Meanwhile, from another office in Cheyenne, District 25 feels the pressure to meet the 16:1 size mandate as soon as possible. But when one part of state government orders that classroom sizes be reduced, when you can't use the buildings you already have, when you can't build a new school on your own, and when there is no money yet to build a new school under the state's auspices -- what, one wonders, is District 25 supposed to do?

Given the state's restrictions, the only answer is to pack another entire grade level into Rendezvous School, partitioning existing rooms, converting rooms unintended for instruction to primary classrooms, and making do until the state decides which way to turn.

Word is that the facilities commission will consider "re-stacking" construction priorities to move Riverton higher on the list for a new elementary school, perhaps even two of them. That would be welcome news, but even if planning for that construction began today, the first students wouldn't be in those new classrooms until the fall of 2014 at the earliest.

The State of Wyoming's public education authorities ought to permit District 25 to use its available facilities better than this, while at the same time fast-tracking plans for a new elementary school. Until both those things happen, our elementary kids are in the soup. The state mustn't let it reach the boiling point.

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