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Amid falling enrollment, South Central considering consolidation

BONESTEEL -- The South Central School District is in the early stages of discussing its future, but its superintendent is confident the school will consolidate in the future.

BONESTEEL - The South Central School District is in the early stages of discussing its future, but its superintendent is confident the school will consolidate in the future.

On Tuesday, the South Central School Board held a special meeting to discuss the possibility of consolidating with Burke. The schools already have an athletics co-op.

Still early in discussions, the districts have not established a timeline for when the consolidation could happen, and haven't officially made a motion for a reorganization to occur, according to South Central Superintendent Brad Peters.

"Our hope is to have some kind of a merger. I don't know what that would look like at this point, but I think it's in the best interest of our students," Peters said. "We need to start looking at options."

Peters said Burke is the only school district that South Central is in discussions with about consolidating at this time. Burke is located about 20 miles west of Bonesteel-where South Central is located-whereas Andes Central, the only other connecting territory, is 33 miles east in Lake Andes. Peters said it is a state law that any district considering consolidation can only do so with an adjacent district, essentially meaning that South Central could not legally consolidate with a district further away, like Avon.

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Burke Superintendent Erik Person said Burke isn't actively pursuing a consolidation outside of discussions with South Central, but is open and receptive to the conversation.

"Life is pretty good right now in Burke," Person said. "We're in a position of financial strength and we feel good about the programming for our kids. We're not seeking a consolidation, but maybe that's coming down the road and we're receptive if anybody wants to talk about it."

And South Central and Burke are no strangers to consolidation talks.

In 2009, the Burke School District was "very close" to a consolidation with South Central, Person said. At the time, the Burke School Board drafted and approved a consolidation plan, but it was rejected by the South Central School Board.

South Central's enrollment numbers have declined in recent years, Peters said, and he expects the trend to continue.

At the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year, the district had 105 students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade, and finished the school year with 99 total students. As of Wednesday, the district had about 99 students, according to Peters.

The falling enrollment, coupled with a new teacher funding formula implemented this school year, led first to informal conversations with Burke about consolidation, then official motions by each respective school board to formally discuss the possibility.

The motions were made at each district's August school board meetings, Peters said and a discussion between the districts has yet to be held.

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South Central's special board meeting Tuesday was open to the public and its goal was to establish a set of ideas and issues the board-appointed two-person reorganization committee would like to discuss with Burke. Peters said he is unsure when those meetings will start taking place, as school officials are still attempting to determine when each is available.

"We can't have any progress without a conversation and that's what we're hoping to accomplish right now-opening those avenues of communication to see what can be done," Peters said.

Additionally, Peters feels the state's half-cent sales tax increase and new teacher funding formulas have only benefitted larger schools, and have caused smaller, rural schools to "take a hit" financially. The South Central School District received $64,265 in new money from the state this year following the teacher pay initiative.

Moving forward, once the Burke and South Central school boards establish a tentative plan, Peters said public meetings will be held to garner thoughts, concerns and feedback from patrons. And, ultimately, the decision about whether to merge will come down to a vote of the people in each school district.

"We've been very transparent about this," Peters said. "We just want to have some concrete things in place before we have a public meeting. Only time will tell."

South Central is at least the second school district in The Daily Republic's coverage area to begin discussions about consolidations amid falling enrollment and the new teacher funding.

The Tripp-Delmont School District is looking to either consolidate, accept an opt out, or dissolve the district within the next two years, according to school officials. Also in the early stages of discussions, the Tripp-Delmont school board has yet to make a decision, but has begun discussions with the Avon, Menno, Armour, Parkston and Scotland school districts about a possible consolidation.

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