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$1 billion later, school funding to level out

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An attentive crowd listens as Sen. John Barrasso speaks during the dedication of the new Powell High School last month. Barrasso spoke of the importance of education and praised the Wyoming Legislature for providing funding for improving school facilities in the state.
Tribune photo by Toby Bonner
Now that two new schools have been completed in Powell, what is next for school construction in the community?
While two more new schools are projected for Powell, the timetable for building them is uncertain, because the school construction program in Wyoming is evolving.
Currently, a new Westside Elementary is being designed, but construction hasn't been funded yet. Todd Wilder, the Big Horn Basin project manager for the Wyoming School Facilities Commission, said he can't be sure when it will be funded by the Legislature.
“It depends on priorities,” Wilder said.
Those priorities may change this winter as the commission re-evaluates all the schools in the state.
After the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled that the state was responsible for providing equitable facilities to all Wyoming school children, the Wyoming Legislature intiated an assessment of all the school facilities in the state. In that study, conducted in 2001, schools were to be evaluated on their condition, capacity and educational suitability.
However, no criteria for educational suitability were available for the study, so the schools were rated mostly on their condition and their capacity. A number of schools were identified in need of immediate attention due to structural problems, safety factors, overcrowding or, in some cases, exceeding the capacity needed for the student body. Powell High School was one of the schools put on the priority list.
Since then, according to Ken Daraie, director of the Wyoming School Facilities Commission, the state has spent more than $1 billion on school construction, renovation and major maintenance to address those school buildings. In the 2007-08 biennium alone, $500 million was appropriated by the Legislature for school facilities. Halfway through the biennium, in June, 2007, there were 47 projects under design and 23 under construction or funded for construction.
Now, however, the state has taken care of the facilities most obviously in need of replacement, and the state will conduct another study of the district's schools this winter. This time, educational suitability will play a much more significant role in the evaluation.
“We've dealt with the no-brainers, the ones that really had to be taken care of,” Daraie said. “Now deciding (which schools need to be replaced) starts to get more subtle.”
What does that mean for Powell?
Planning continues on a new Westside Elementary, based on the design of Southside School, and Superintendent Kevin Mitchell said a value engineering conference is scheduled this week with the facilities commission. The hope is that construction will be funded during the next two years.
As for the middle school, Wilder said, the situation with the old high school may give the project a higher priority. While the high school building is scheduled for demolition, the cafeteria is needed for the middle school. Students must cross the street to use the cafeteria, a safety problem according to the state's guidelines for schools, and it forces the district and the state to maintain building space that is not needed or used.
“The facts are that we can't abandon the old high school,” Wilder said. “We're pushing hard to resolve those issues. We need to get those kids out of that old building.”
To expedite, Wilder said, the district needs to designate a middle school site so that planning can begin.
Looking down the road, Wilder said the commission is “out of crisis management” and focusing on long-range strategic planning. In the Big Horn Basin, he said, a new Rocky Mountain High School is planned in Cowley, and an elementary school in Cody will be replaced. Greybull has minor issues with its middle school, and the commission is beginning long-range planning with Greybull and Lovell. All projects in Worland and Thermopolis have been completed.
Daraie said future spending will decline now that the problem schools have been addressed. However, the state will continue to appropriate funds for school facilities. Schools, which have a lifespan of 50-60 years, will need to be repaired, upgraded or replaced every year.
“I've tried to convince (the Legislature) that there is no light at the end of the tunnel,” Daraie said. “It (facilities construction) will be on-going.”

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