Breaking Away

Idaliaís students may have only one school, but at least itís theirs.

"With funding at a little over $5,000 per student but costing over $7,000 a student, it just didn't work," says Bob Kechter, the only West Yuma County Board of Education member representing Liberty. "Yuma had to take its money and send it to Liberty." The school had to cut staffing and programs: Second- and third-graders were combined into one class, and high school art and music classes were eliminated.

"We were backed into a corner," Kechter says. "Last spring, when we went before the legislature, we were looking to close our school within three years. Now we're seeing a light at the end of the tunnel." But Kechter believes West Yuma's deconsolidation will be smoother and more acceptable than East Yuma's deconsolidation. "We've been virtually operating as two separate school districts for years," he says. "We're just lumped into one."

High grades: Jim Rittenhouse is proud of the way his community fought for its own school district.
David Rehor
High grades: Jim Rittenhouse is proud of the way his community fought for its own school district.

Before Idalia and Wray -- and Liberty and Yuma -- can part ways, however, residents of all four towns have to vote on the deconsolidation. Both districts have formed committees to draft plans for how the divisions will be made, how the assets will be split, what the makeup of the boards will be and how the long-term bond debts will be paid off. Once the committee members finalize the plans, they will be voted on in November. If voters favor deconsolidation -- as most people expect they will -- the change will take effect in 2001, and Idalia's annual per-student funding could jump from about $5,000 a year to $8,600. Funding for Wray will remain roughly the same.

Idalia's Soehner is on the seven-member committee that's planning the East Yuma deconsolidation. The plan, which needs to be finalized by September, calls for five boardmembers to be elected at large.

And although an amicable parting seems like a sure thing, it will involve mixed emotions in both Idalia and Wray, a little bit of fear and even a touch of bitterness about the perceived disparities of the past.

Shielded from the surrounding countryside by high bluffs and situated at the end of a winding, two-lane highway is Wray. The sprawling town appears suddenly, with all the trappings of a good-sized city: a police station, a hospital, a city park, a pay-at-the-pump gas station, and the Wray Super, the local grocery store where Chris Hartz runs the pharmacy.

"I think [deconsolidation] will be a big benefit to both communities," says Hartz, who represents Wray on the East Yuma County Board of Education and also sits on the deconsolidation planning committee. The problem, he says, is that it will make for less efficient school districts. "When you have two schools close together, you can have shared resources," he says. "They'll come back up to par eventually, but it will take time. It would have been nice if [the state] could have provided funding without splitting us, but there was no other way." If legislators had increased funding for the school without deconsolidation, he says, they would have had to increase funding for all small schools in Colorado.

Hartz can see why residents in Idalia feel like stepchildren, but, he says, "the board has tried to be equitable and has tried to make sure Idalia is taken care of. Idalia has been able to develop a really quality education system, and they've done an excellent job of making sure their kids get what they need."

Southwest of the Wray Super, a few blocks beyond Buchanan Middle School, is Wray's elementary/high school which was built with money from the 1984 bond issue. Although the immense peach-colored building opened in 1987, it still has the fresh-paint smell and sparkling-clean look of a brand-new school.

Jim Pagel, the principal of the high school, was born and raised in Yuma County and understands the differences between the two towns. "Idalia has a terrific school system and they have their own special needs which need to be dealt with by their own people," he says, adding that Wray has 750 kids attending its three schools while Idalia only has 150. Because of that, the academic and athletic offerings in Wray are more abundant than those in Idalia.

Walking through the school, Pagel steps over some students who are sprawled out in the hallway during a break and stops at one of the showcases that line the walls in the foyer. Behind the glass are dozens of trophies fashioned in the shapes of miniature basketball players, football players and track runners. Pagel boasts that Wray High School has won eleven state wrestling championships. In another showcase is an enormous plaque honoring Wray for winning a state academic decathlon six years in a row.

He continues into the cafeteria, where wall-length windows provide a magnificent view of the new football field and track, a gift from a local foundation. Pagel leads the way down wide, carpeted hallways toward the library, with its high, wood-beamed ceilings and chrome light fixtures, then on to the auditorium, a room so large it puts the biggest college lecture hall to shame. He winds through several classrooms in the labyrinthine hallways: an agriculture class, a shop class and a technology lab stocked with brand-new Compaq computers.

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