Wynot, Neb., principal Rich Higgins (left) and superintendent Joey Lefdal are helping the district adjust to the loss of shared staff and services with Newcastle, which is seeking a merger with Hartington. Lefdal will also lose his job as Newcastle superintendent and principal with the merger, and he has accepted the position of Santee superintendent.

WYNOT, Neb. — The proposed merger between Hartington Public and Newcastle — receiving an April 29 hearing with Nebraska state officials in Lincoln — is affecting more than those two school districts.

Neighboring Wynot shares staff with Newcastle. However, those arrangements will cease to exist should Newcastle close, as expected, after this year.

Joey Lefdal finds himself among those forced to make the adjustment. He serves as superintendent for the Wynot district and superintendent and principal for the Newcastle district.

Now, he joins the Newcastle staff losing their positions with the anticipated merger.

“We knew this would be our last year at Newcastle,” he said. “When we started co-oping athletics with Ponca, we lost half our enrollment. It went from 135 to 75 kids. And we had little left for the district levy.”

The big decision was which district to join for the merger, Lefdal said. “Hartington was seen as the best option, even though we co-oped for athletics with Ponca,” he said.

Rather than remain at Wynot in a part-time capacity, Lefdal sought a new position elsewhere.

“Wynot is starting with a new superintendent next year, who will also teach part-time math,” he said. “Wynot has hired Jeff Messersmith, who is currently the Winside (Neb.) superintendent.”

The Wynot district will be left in good hands, Lefdal said. Messersmith has served as the Winside superintendent for the last five years and was principal during the preceding five years.

“Jeff is an amazing leader who cares about kids and knows the ins and outs of the small school district,” Lefdal said. “He is currently looking for a home in the Wynot area. Jeff and I are good friends, so he is familiar with Wynot.”

“He is ready for the job,” Lefdal added.

Messersmith officially takes over the Wynot position July 1.

“I will always be a phone call away for Jeff, but I will be done with my position at Newcastle and Wynot the first part of June,” Lefdal said.  

And what does the future hold for Lefdal? Well, he has found a new position just down Nebraska Highway 12.

“I have been offered and accepted the superintendent position at Santee Public Schools,” he said. “I have started prepping for next year and brainstorming how to improve the education for the district. I am excited to be given such a great opportunity to help kids.”

While the recent upheavals have been challenging, the Wynot district has made the necessary staffing and course adjustments for its future, Lefdal said.

“Wynot is staffed and ready for another solid year,” he said.

Wynot principal Rich Higgins said the district won’t miss a beat. “We’ll do some reshuffling and reorganizing,” he said.

The district will shift some high school and middle school staff assignments to fill in the gaps, Higgins said. The district also plans to continue using distance learning, he said.

Enrollment numbers are a concern for several northeast Nebraska schools, but Wynot has remained stable with 166 students this year, Higgins said.

Changing demographics have resulted in school districts looking at various merger plans. A five-school arrangement currently under discussion involves Bloomfield, Wausa, Creighton, Plainview and Osmond.

The dropping student numbers are reflected in the shifting athletic classifications, Higgins said. “There’s falling enrollment because there’s no kids,” he said.

As he prepares to leave, Lefdal said he feels good about Wynot’s future. He pointed to the patrons’ tenacity in meeting any challenge coming their way. In addition, he noted the groundwork laid by his predecessor, Dan Hoesing, for cooperating with other schools.

“Wynot is one of the strongest communities that I have known,” Lefdal said.

Lefdal faces a final task before leaving his current positions. As Newcastle superintendent and principal, he will attend the April 29 hearing for the Hartington-Newcastle merger. The 9:30 a.m. hearing will be held in front of the Board of Reorganization on the sixth floor of the state Department of Education in Lincoln.

“This will finalize the merger between the two districts,” he said. “I will be there along with (Newcastle director of services) Craig Frerichs and a few board members. There really are no issues. They will finalize our consolidation plan, and that should be it.”

Frerichs has worked with the Wynot, Newcastle, Laurel-Concord and Coleridge districts through an inter-local sharing agreement.

The Hartington-Newcastle merger proposal was a board-to-board petition, which is the most common way to consolidate schools, Lefdal said. The consolidation plan provides for the new district’s leadership, he added.

“The board elections are coming up, and we wanted to ensure a smooth          transition,” he said. “Hartington would keep its six board members, and three Newcastle board members would be appointed to the board for three years.”

Hartington and Newcastle are located 28 miles apart. The merged district is looking at a K-12 enrollment of 312 (242 from Hartington and 70 from Newcastle).

The combined current land valuation would be $874 million, with $669 million from Hartington and $205 million from Newcastle. The estimated state aid would be nearly $67,000, based on Hartington’s $52,000 and Newcastle’s $14,700.

As the school year winds down, Lefdal is preparing for a lot of “lasts” — including the apparent last graduating class for Newcastle High School. The May 3 ceremony will be held at 4 p.m., with May 15 as the last day of school.

Meanwhile, Wynot’s graduation — also Lefdal’s last at the school — is set for May 10 at 7 p.m. The last day of school is set for May 16.

“You think you’re ready for it, but it still hits you,” he said. “It will be emotional.”

You can follow Randy Dockendorf on Twitter at twitter.com/RDockendorf. Discuss this story at www.yankton.net.

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