Opinion: State's smaller schools again come under fireState funding for smaller schools in South Dakota is in the crosshairs of a number of lawmakers who see new reductions as one way to help balance the state budget. This targeting of small schools, though troubling, is not new.
By: Noel Hamiel, The Daily Republic
State funding for smaller schools in South Dakota is in the crosshairs of a number of lawmakers who see new reductions as one way to help balance the state budget.
This targeting of small schools, though troubling, is not new. Efforts to curtail fiscal support as one means to force consolidation have been going on for years. Now, however, because of increased pressure on the state’s budget, the assault has reached a new intensity.
Both political parties have pledged to return the state to a more fiscally firm footing. Republicans have the stated goal of finding $36 million in budget cuts in order to leave intact the state’s reserve fund for the budget crisis that is likely to present itself in 2011-2012.
Let’s be clear. I’m on board with finding significant budget reductions. We need to identify ways to restore fiscal responsibility to the budget and accountability to taxpayers. We must rid ourselves of the “structural deficits” that have marked budgets in recent years and return to a “pay as you go” footing.
To achieve this in a slower economy requires cutbacks or tax increases. I favor the former, and that’s why some of the more lucrative incentives for economic development, including wind power, are on the table. That’s why there is a real possibility that Gov. Rounds’ recommendation that there will be no increase for K-12 funding in the 2010-2011 budget will become reality. That’s why any bill that has a new appropriation in it is under closer scrutiny this year than in past years.
The immediate challenge for rural schools this session is to retain the “small-school factor,” which has been in place for many years and is included in the state’s formula for aid to education. It gives small schools a little extra money, recognizing the difficulties of balancing budgets with smaller classes and without efficiencies of scale that larger schools enjoy.
Because all schools — large and small — may be required to take a zero increase in state aid, eliminating the small-school factor would be a double penalty for smaller schools. In effect, it would penalize them for succeeding at open enrollment, which allows students to decide which school they will attend.
House Bill 1150, which this week was heard in the House Education Committee, would eliminate the small-school dollars for those schools that attract students from outside their school district. If this bill becomes law, the Ethan School District would face a reduction of $44,075 in school aid. Mount Vernon would be hit with a $30,397 cutback. The Mitchell School District would not be affected because it and other large schools are not covered by the small-school factor.
Outside of the bill’s sponsor and the lobbyist for the Eastern South Dakota schools, no one spoke in favor of the bill. In contrast, the Secretary of Education, Tom Oster, provided our panel with numerous reasons why the measure should be defeated. He was joined in that effort by the lobbyists for large schools in Rapid City and Sioux Falls, and the lobbyist for mid-sized schools.
It has become apparent to me, as I enter the second year of this two-year term as a state representative, that out-state South Dakota — rural areas of the state — are not understood by many who live on either end of the state or in larger towns. They do not understand the importance of the school to the community.
I had a conversation with a lawmaker from one of this state’s larger towns and he said, “Don’t tell me about how schools are key to the economic vitality of a small town. That train left the station a long time ago.”
I suppose if you live in Rapid City or Sioux Falls or even cities the size of Mitchell, you enjoy the luxury of knowing that you’ve achieved a critical mass of population necessary to survive the changing economy. What often is lost in this conversation is that schools in small towns are not only the educational center, but also the cultural, entertainment and economic center of the community. Without the high school, the community will almost surely die. With it, there is the ongoing chance that a new economic engine will start up, either from within or from without.
South Dakota is more than those two great cities on the east and west borders. It’s about what lies in between, as well.
Noel Hamiel, a Republican from Mitchell, is a member of the South Dakota House of Representatives. He represents District 20, which includes Davison and Aurora counties.