New School Drives Wedge Through Border Town
For the past decade, the state line that separates west from east Wendover hasn't mattered very much.
No matter which side of the line they live on, the town's children attend grades K-6 on the Nevada side and 7-12 in Utah.
But next fall ends a decade-long agreement between the school boards of Elko County, Nevada, and Tooele County, Utah. And then, the state line is going to matter a lot.
Early last month, the 200 or so students from the Nevada side took field trips to the $9 million high school being built for them just inside their home state. Left behind were about 200 of their classmates who, because they live on the Utah side, won't be attending the new school next year.
Instead, the Utah high school students will still attend classes in the aging building where many of their parents went to school, a building with no track or separate auditorium. If all goes as planned, the younger Utah students will attend class in several modular units in a nearby parking lot.
Educators on both sides agree that the break won't be easy.
"They do have friends who have been with them since kindergarten, and it's going to be tough," said Fred Gorton, the principal on the Nevada side.
But parents on the Utah side say it will be tougher for their children, and that ending the arrangement will separate the haves from the have-nots.
Utah, they argue, lacks Nevada's rich tax base fueled by the casino gambling that ends right at the state line in downtown Wendover. Much of the recent growth in the area has been on the Nevada side.
"With all the building and all the houses going up over there, you're comparing a 5-year-old town with a town that's 105 years old," said Greg Mascaro, a Utah resident who is the father of two children at the Nevada elementary school and one in the Utah high school.
Mr. Mascaro and many other Utah residents blame their children's predicament not on the Nevada district, which offered to let their community buy into the high school, but on their own school board.
Based more than 100 miles to the east, the Tooele (pronounced too-ELL-ah) board has a history of leaving isolated Wendover the short end of the stick, Wendover parents say. They believe the board should have better prepared for the end of its agreement with Nevada.
"Tooele has known about this for years, and now it's the 11th hour and they've done nothing," said Marie Johnston, a Wendover, Utah resident who was unseated from the Tooele school board more than 15 years ago.
In addition to the geographic isolation, a widening cultural gap also separates Wendover from the rest of Tooele County. The 515 students on the Utah side of Wendover represent a small fraction of the Tooele district's 7,200-student population.
An influx of Mexican immigrants who come to work in the Nevada casinos has made Wendover's high school the only one of Tooele county's schools where members of minority groups make up a majority of students.
"There is a tremendous amount of distrust in that community toward our board of education," said Jose Trujillo, an assistant superintendent for Tooele's schools.
That mistrust boiled over at the board's Feb. 13 meeting, when Wendover residents booed its members for voting to put the town's Utah elementary students in modular units next school year.
At the same meeting, the board approved a $4.5 million bond to build a new K-6 school in Wendover, but construction will take about 15 months even if voters approve it in November.
Some Wendover, Utah, residents say their feelings of neglect are more than just mistrust bred by isolation. At their request, the Utah branch of the American Civil Liberties Union has begun investigating allegations that the Tooele board has discriminated against its students in Wendover, where about 70 percent of the student population is Hispanic.
Officials in the district reject the charges of prejudice.
"I can categorically say there hasn't been any discrimination," Tooele school board president Frank Mohlman said. "We're trying to do the best we can with an isolated situation."
Under the current arrangement between Elko and Tooele counties, each district pays the other to take its students.
Depending on the grade level, Elko has paid Tooele between $2,400 and $2,800 a year for each student going to high school on the Utah side. Tooele has paid between $1,200 and $2,000 a year to have its students attend grades K-6 in Nevada.
But after the Tooele board rejected Elko County's offer to share in the cost of the new high school in Nevada, the Elko schools later came back with a new cost-per-pupil deal to begin once their new school opened: about $3,800.
Along with the high cost of building a new school, the deal was complicated by the fact that Elko County on average spends about $4,500 per student, compared with about $3,400 in Tooele County.
"We've made the decision to do what we need to do for the citizens of Elko County," said Marcia Bandera, the superintendent of the 9,800-student Elko district. "I'm very sympathetic to the tough circumstances of the students and the parents in Utah."