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Process moves District 21 unification closer

Apr 1, 2012 - By Christina George, Staff Writer

The Fremont County Boundary Board met to solicit public comments for the school district's request to become a K-12 educational system.

"We need the citizens' opinions to go to the state," said Fremont County Commission chairman Doug Thompson at the start of the meeting March 26 at Fort Washakie School.

The boundary board consists of the five county commissioners, County Assessor Tara Berg and County Treasurer Scott Harnsberger. Commissioner Dennis Christensen was absent from the meeting.

The meeting is required by state statute for Fremont County School District 21 to proceed with its unification request.

Fort Washakie is one of two K-8 school districts in the state. The other is Fremont County School District 38 at Arapahoe.

Both districts operate charter high schools for older students.

The next step will be for the boundary board to create a report from the meeting and vote on whether or not it will support the request. Thompson hopes to be able to take the vote April 3.

If approved by the boundary board, the request will advance to the Wyoming State Board of Education for final approval.

Before scheduling the March 26 meeting, School District 21 was required to collect a petition signed by 100 registered voters who reside in the district. The district also had to reach a 500-student enrollment before moving forward.

Testimony

About 20 people spoke during the two-hour meeting, all of whom said they favored unification.

"Having a K-12 school district would sure give us our own identities," said Fort Washakie Charter High School student Wyatt Goggles.

Students said other benefits with the change include class options, providing additional jobs for community members and helping alleviate money issues that come with having to travel outside the district to attend school.

Community member and teacher Terry Gallinger said she would like to continue supporting students after the eighth grade.

"I want to see them finish high school here," Gallinger said.

School District 21 attorney Scott Kolpitcke told the boundary board that Fort Washakie students need unification.

"These students deserve an opportunity to complete high school in their own community and their own school district," Kolpitcke said.

Thompson asked about facilities if unification was achieved.

Superintendent Richard McClements told Thompson that the district is slated for a new 104,000 square foot K-8 facility. There is still time to add square footage to accommodate the extra classes if the district were unified.

Facilities plan

Rich Hardt, of the School Facilities Department, said money is set aside for the design phase of the new K-8 school, but his agency is holding off with planning until the unification request is decided.

"I've been watching this project for a long time," Hardt said.

Fort Washakie has attempted unification for several years, with the major roadblock being the 500-student enrollment requirement.

He said because the charter school can only house 50 to 60 children in its current facilities, it limits how many students can attend. Others have to choose to attend schools at Lander, Wind River, Wyoming Indian, Dubois, Riverton or at boarding schools.

Some made statements about how attending school outside Fort Washakie affects their education, and often times there are several transfers from school to school.

Patricia Bergie, for example, has a daughter who attended school at Fort Washakie through eighth grade and transferred many times while in high school.

"She was in and out of everywhere," Bergie said.

School librarian Robin Levin said Fort Washakie students right now have to make "complex, life-changing decisions" as eighth-graders. She also noted younger students need to be inspired by older siblings and cousins who attend and graduate high school.

"Equality says unification is an option for us, more than an option, a right," said School District 21 board member Karen King.

King suggested unification could affect the district's graduation and dropout rates, fiscal accountability and transportation needs.

"This is a no-brainer," parent Orville St. Clair said about why the district should be unified.

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