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Classes Resume After S.D. Explosion

August 18, 2001

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PLANKINTON, S.D. (AP) _ A purple merry-go-round and an abandoned shop classroom are all that remain of Plankinton School.

Weeds now grow over the site where students had gathered for 75 years until one day last fall when a propane explosion tore apart the building, killing Superintendent Dave Grode and custodian Pat Phillips.

The explosion and fire stunned the rural town of 600, but it didn’t destroy the soul of its school.

A few blocks away, in a dozen modular classrooms, teachers are making lesson plans for next week’s start of the school year. The girls basketball team is running drills in a temporary gym built by the community. And a groundbreaking ceremony is planned next weekend on a new school building nearby.

``There will always be that pain and that special feeling for Dave and Pat, but life goes on. It has to for our kids,″ said Roberta Bruns, who runs a downtown espresso bar, beauty shop and flower store and has a daughter starting eighth grade.

Late in the afternoon of Nov. 17, Grode, Phillips and three others were inside the old brick school building investigating a propane leak. They had evacuated students at wrestling practice and had turned on fans to ventilate the building when the school burst into flames. Firefighters emptied the town’s water tower fighting the blaze.

With their school building gone, residents in the small town 90 miles west of Sioux Falls wondered how their community would survive.

``Without a school, a lot of the spirit of the community seems to go,″ said school board member J.P. Studeny, one of three survivors of the blast.

He and other board members met with neighboring Mount Vernon school officials to discuss sharing resources, but Studeny said consolidating the districts wasn’t an option for Plankinton.

By rebuilding the town’s school, young families would be less likely to move, and students from nearby districts could attend through the state’s open enrollment policy, Studeny said.

``If Plankinton wasn’t going to have a school, I wasn’t going to stay around,″ said Mary Rhoades, whose children are 8, 10 and 12.

Last month, voters overwhelmingly endorsed a $2 million bond issue to build a $5.5 million school in Plankinton. Most of the rest will come from insurance, with the remaining $1 million to be made up by grants, donations and fund-raisers.

This fall, the usual enrollment is expected _ 200 students in kindergarten through 12th grade drawn from a more than 250-square-mile area.

``It’s been amazing,″ said Larry Wynia, superintendent since January. ``You hope that no other community has to go through that, but I know that it has made these people a lot stronger.″

Immediately after the explosion, the school board set up temporary classrooms in churches and at a state-run reform school in town. Students missed just four days of school.

Classes were later moved into three state-provided homes built by prison inmates and some modular classrooms leased from the local development corporation. Donations of textbooks and classroom supplies poured in from across the country.

For the last three months of the 2000-2001 school year, the district operated out of 12 modular buildings. Students will return to that arrangement on Thursday.

Alex Johnson, 17, a senior and Plankinton’s student council president, says the only thing he doesn’t like about the modular classrooms is less time to mingle. The buildings are not linked by hallways, so students have to go outside to change classes. ``You kind of pass each other on the sidewalk, there’s really no talking,″ he said.

Students still must play their home basketball games in other towns, but the teams are excited to begin their seasons. To honor Grode, who was a coach, the girls team is wearing warm-up jerseys with his picture on the sleeve, said Abby Kristensen, 16.

The promise of a new building as early as next fall will make getting through the school year easier, Wynia said. ``We know that down the road there’s going to be a new school waiting for us,″ he said.

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On the Net:

Plankinton School: http://www.plankinton.k12.sd.us