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Wright County schools face unknown as they prepare for Prestage

EAGLE GROVE — As Prestage Foods advances plans to locate its $240 million pork processing plant in Wright County, schools in that area are developing a “wait-and-see” strategy as a number of unknown factors affect preparations.

County officials have said their plan is to spread students — from the families of 900 workers Prestage says it intends to hire in its initial phase — among several county school districts rather than have one shoulder the burden of a sharp enrollment increase.

But Wright County schools will have to make do without the $1.4 million over 10 years the company offered to the Mason City School District before the Mason City deal collapsed with the City Council’s 3-3 vote in May.

“We’re looking at this as a regional issue, not an Eagle Grove issue,” said Eagle Grove Superintendent Jess Toliver. “If we got a bonus from Prestage that wouldn’t help the other districts.”

School leaders in Eagle Grove recently met with education officials in Fort Dodge, Humboldt, Clarion-Goldfield-Dows, Webster City and Belmond-Klemme to discuss preparations.

Right now, the process is just to gather questions, Toliver said.

He’d like a timeline for when management moves in and other workers are in training. Other questions the group has discussed are resources and funding to expect from the state with a jump in students, and what resources they could share across districts, he said.

Some of the biggest challenging will be determining whether to hire new staff or get existing teachers certified to teach English Language Learners (ELL).

“You don’t want to be overstaffed,” he said. “We’ll wait and see who registers and go from there.

“We don’t know what kind of increase we’ll get,” Toliver said, noting 100 to 200 new students would be “significant” for the district, which had a certified enrollment of 839 last school year.

Like other small, rural districts, the state is projecting schools in Wright County will see flat enrollment or slight declines over the next five years, not including the impact of the proposed pork plant.

“We need to grow, with or without this plant,” Toliver said.

Eagle Grove currently has three ELL teachers, one full time and two part time, teaching 88 students in the program. The district sees about 20 new students each year in the program, he said.

Not every child of a plant worker will need ELL services, which are designed to immerse a native foreign language speaker in English, Toliver said.

“ELL is not designed to teach Spanish speakers, it’s designed to teach English. People don’t understand that. They can come speaking many languages,” he said.

“It’s not easy for the student. It would be like me moving to France,” he said.

Prestage Foods of Iowa’s proposed 650,000-square-foot plant would be built on a 150-plus-acre site off the southwest corner of Highway 17 and 320th Street.

Wright County officials said if approved, construction would begin in October. The plant would take just under two years to complete and would be operational by summer 2018.

The company has said the plant will be a $43 million boost to the payroll in Wright County and will have economic benefits to the surrounding counties as well. The lowest-paid workers will begin at more than $37,000 annually plus benefits, said Prestage, with average pay at more than $47,000.

CHRIS ZOELLER, The Globe Gazette  

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