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Governor tells Wagner audience that schools struggling with funding should work together

WAGNER -- Gov. Mike Rounds told an audience of around 50 Wagner-area residents Monday that South Dakota's schools should not rely on alternative funding sources, but instead should consider working with other districts and pooling existing resources.

WAGNER -- Gov. Mike Rounds told an audience of around 50 Wagner-area residents Monday that South Dakota's schools should not rely on alternative funding sources, but instead should consider working with other districts and pooling existing resources.

Rounds' speech in the school gymnasium capped his visit to Wagner, a trip that also included a ribbon-cutting for a new Early Childhood Addition at the Wagner Community School. He concluded the day with the latest of his education town hall meetings, which he has conducted across the state during his tenure as governor.

The intent of the meeting was to invite administrators, teachers, board members and the community to share information to ensure that the education system in Wagner prepares students for college, technical school and the workplace, according to Rounds.

When asked by an audience member whether he would consider a corporate tax as a funding mechanism, Rounds flatly turned down the idea.

"I am not considering a corporate tax (for school funding) at all," he said.

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He also said that the current tactic employed by a group of the state's school districts -- which are suing the state for better education funding -- is not a good way to secure funding.

"I think it's a serious mistake because everyone will have to lawyer up," he said.

He presented several statistics, compiled by the state, in slideshow format for audience members. One statistic showed that the Wagner School District gained 5 percent more students from 2000 to 2005, bucking the state trend of a 4 percent decline.

Other statistics, however, showed the challenges faced by the school district. The fact that the school is rural -- although not as rural as other South Dakota schools -- may make it a candidate for consolidation in the future. There are eight other high schools within 25 miles of Wagner, according to information presented by Rounds.

Susan Smit, Wagner superintendent, picked up on that statistic and asked the governor whether the state will provide schools with a blueprint for consolidating and pooling their resources.

"Part of the problem is that we're all used to local control," Rounds said in response. "I don't think necessarily that you have to have consolidation. But I think what it does mean is that schools have to be able to share and coordinate resources and services when it's in the best interest of the students."

The perception that each district competes with another for resources needs to be reconsidered, Rounds said. Schools need to look at nearby schools as helpers, rather than competitors, he said.

"The sooner we talk about these options the better," he said. "Let's make sure students have the academic opportunities they need."

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Rounds presented statistics that show the Wagner district, which serves around 800 students, is near the statewide average for ACT composite scores. The state ACT composite score in 2003 averaged 21.5, whereas Wagner's that year was 20.9.

In 2005, Wagner's average ACT score was 21.3, just shy of the state average of 21.6.

Rounds cautioned that the statistics presented at the town hall meeting are not meant to discourage or incite overconfidence.

"These numbers are not pass/fail," he said. "These are the tools that we use to make important decisions about the future."

Many questions from audience members focused on teacher pay, continuing education and information accessibility. Rounds said Wagner's participation in the laptop program will help the latter, allowing families access to the Internet on the high school's wireless Internet system if they don't have access to high speed Internet at home.

Rounds also pushed parents and students in the audience to participate in the many scholarship programs offered to students and to continue their education beyond high school. Rounds gave examples of several programs that he says are helping students reach degrees in high-demand fields like nursing or trade degrees like welding, saying "they're fabulous."

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