TRIPP — The Tripp-Delmont School District is exploring consolidation should the district feel it is appropriate in the event a future planned opt-out resolution fails to meet voter approval.

The Tripp-Delmont Board of Education discussed reaching out to area school districts on the matter over the last couple of months when the board wanted to provide extra information to district taxpayers, who will be looking at approving an opt-out to the state property tax freeze in the future.

While the consolidation discussions are strictly in the preliminary stage and contingent on how any future opt-out vote pans out, it is prudent to perform due diligence in research to give district patrons the information they need about the condition and future of the school district, Andrea Powell, superintendent for the Tripp-Delmont School District, told the Mitchell Republic in an email.

“Tripp-Delmont operates under an opt-out and we will be asking for another opt-out in the coming year, so to ensure that we are providing our taxpayers with all options, we decided it was prudent to also reach out to schools on what a potential consolidation could look like,” Powell said. “The decision to reach out to other schools for a potential partnership happened as a result of the last opt-out. The taxpayers at that time expressed a want for comparison data so that the next time an opt-out conversation came about, there would be a solid backup plan and some comparison tax breakouts to provide context for the voters.”

Consolidation has long been a topic among smaller school districts in the state as rural enrollment is often in decline, state funding is often lower than school districts' needs and districts have a more difficult time meeting the demands of a modern educational experience as an independent district. It can be a contentious subject, as many small South Dakota communities strongly associate their local school directly with their community.

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Statistics from the South Dakota Department of Education indicate school reorganizations or consolidations occurring almost yearly beginning in 1950. The most recent district undergoing a reorganization occurred when Grant-Deuel dissolved and attached to the Milbank School District, the Deuel School District and the Waverly-South Shore School District in 2018.

The most recent case of two schools merging in consolidation was the Corsica School District consolidating with the Stickney School District to form Corsica-Stickney in 2016. Tripp-Delmont itself formed out of the Tripp School District and the Delmont School District in 1991.

There are upsides to consolidation, Powell said, but its effectiveness depends on how well a consolidation arrangement is made.

“Consolidation is a tough conversation for any community to have because it can feel like a loss of their school, but that really all depends on how the consolidation plan is developed between the communities involved,” Powell said. “Truly, there is no one way to approach the consolidation topic that yields equal results in the end, it really depends on the communities and how well they work together that makes all the difference.”

The district reached out to area districts such as Menno, Parkston, Scotland and Armour. Powell said that all of those schools have responded with at least some level of interest in the matter in informal discussion.

Schools were approached based primarily on their geographical proximity to the Tripp-Delmont district. The Armour School District already shares some resources with the Tripp-Delmont district, including a sports cooperative and an administrator. Powell serves as superintendent for both districts.

Like consolidation, the formation of sports cooperatives can be an emotional topic. While the district is exploring options with several area schools, Powell said the current connection between Tripp-Delmont and Armour has gone well and provides an example of how inter-school cooperation can benefit its students.

“Sports cooperatives often do provide a lot of emotional weight for communities because the kids know each other, and the families have already bonded. I do believe the both sides believe in the TDA cooperative and would like to see it continue,” Powell said.

Tripp-Delmont has looked at consolidation possibilities in the past. Those past conversations also developed around the last time district voters considered an opt-out. District voters approved a $400,000 opt-out resolution in 2017 by a vote of 380-228. That vote eliminated the district’s immediate need to create a consolidation plan at that time.

South Dakota law allows the opt-out option for school districts to raise additional revenue for their general funds beyond the amount generated by the existing tax levies and money from state aid. If district voters approve an opt-out, the district can impose a higher tax levy.

“Tripp-Delmont has considered consolidation. In fact, in their last opt-out conversation, they began meeting with schools should the opt-out not pass. In the end, that opt-out did pass, so they did not need to pursue the option of consolidation,” Powell said.

She said presenting the pertinent information to the public regarding any consolidation talks is vital to keeping district patrons informed on the situation of the district and its options going forward. She said the first goal in future discussions will be to set an opt-out amount for voters to consider, and then to continue to educate those voters with discussions that will take place in the coming year.

While some patrons may prefer to avoid consolidation, giving them good information from which to make decisions can open up understanding on why it may be a useful option. Maintaining a high educational experience for district students is of paramount importance, she said,

“I believe that if you give them information and context, the taxpayers make the decision, and at that time, you are enacting their voice, which is the job,” Powell said. “Although it is true that many times consolidation can be touchy, I don’t believe that it needs to be. Passions run high, and there is a future for the students at stake, so anyone in the consolidation conversation should give it great weight, but weight does not necessarily mean it has to be ugly.”

Consolidation is a secondary priority at the moment, with the current focus being on the future opt-out. Powell said the district will continue to hold conversations and explore its options in order to help provide information that taxpayers can use to make an informed decision and understand the pros and cons of the opt-out and any future potential consolidation, should the need arise.

No formal meetings between districts have been scheduled on the topics at this time. But Powell said inter-committee meetings with other districts and public information meetings will likely be scheduled as the situation progresses.

“We are just starting down that path, so nothing has been scheduled for now, but there will be meetings with the committee and neighboring committees in the future,” Powell said. “As we gather more information and organize our path forward, we will have meetings set up that involve the community and public input.”