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Joint powers discussions between Burke, South Central move forward at joint board meeting

BONESTEEL -- As a joint meeting between the Burke and South Central school boards came to a close Monday night, the Burke board left a decision about the districts' future in South Central's hands.

School supply photo illustration. (Matt Gade/Republic)
School supply photo illustration. (Matt Gade/Republic)

BONESTEEL - As a joint meeting between the Burke and South Central school boards came to a close Monday night, the Burke board left a decision about the districts' future in South Central's hands.

And it could be as late as August before a tentative plan between the districts is created, which are contemplating a joint-powers agreement.

The agreement would allow the South Central district to send some of its grade levels to the Burke district without pursuing a consolidation or dissolution of the South Central school.

At Monday's meeting in the South Central School District's library in Bonesteel, the boards met to discuss the potential agreement, and highlighted major questions South Central must answer, with the most important being which grade levels would be involved.

"A lot of that depends on ... what you guys want to do," Burke Superintendent Erik Person said. "From our perspective, I kind of feel like it matters and I maybe have an opinion on it, but I'm going to reserve that for now. What's your comfort level? What would help your district in the transition?"

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The South Central board indicated it intends to hold a public forum in regards to the agreement in the coming months, then begin forming its plan with the public's thoughts and opinions in mind.

The earliest the joint powers could take effect would be for the 2018-19 school year, as the deadline for submitting a plan is Feb. 1.

Person hopes Burke and South Central can move forward in discussions, potentially beginning to form an official joint-powers agreement, at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, should the two districts decide to pursue the agreement.

If adopted by the two school boards, the state department of education requires the joint-powers agreement be maintained for a minimum of three years.

Other options the South Central district could pursue are operate until the district runs out of money, at which time South Central would dissolve and students would be free to join neighboring districts at their discretion; dissolve and attach to a neighboring district; or South Central and a second, neighboring district could dissolve and create a new district in the form of a consolidation.

"It's also really important, more on (the South Central) board than (the Burke) board that we have an idea of what we want so that those individuals who are employed by the school can plan," South Central School Board Member Sara Nolan said. "That's why, as much as we don't want to jump into something, we really need a plan. We owe it to them to have our minds set toward something so they can plan."

'There's room'

The joint-powers discussions come as a result of declining enrollment in the South Central district, whose enrollment has dipped below 100 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

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The state mandates that any district with a sub-100 enrollment pursues a reorganization of some kind within two years. The pursuit of a reorganization is not halted if enrollment jumps above 100, according to South Central Superintendent Brad Peters - once the number of students in the district drops below 100, a reorganization is required. South Central has 97 students in its district, according to Peters.

Joint powers is an "exception to the rule," Person said Monday.

Should the two districts pursue the agreement, it is proposed that seventh- through 12th-grade South Central students are tuitioned to Burke, meaning South Central would still receive state funding for those students, but Burke would charge tuition at a set rate for each student attending classes in its district.

The grades involved could change in upcoming discussions, but if the districts stick to the initial plan, approximately 30 students would transition from South Central to Burke.

"We have to make sure we can justify both districts moving forward," South Central Board Vice President Laurie Pistulka said. "But, in the end, it's the kids who are going to have to benefit from everything, and I think they will benefit from bigger class sizes."

But space isn't a problem at Burke facilities.

According to Person, enrollment in the Burke district is half of what it was 20 years ago. At one point, he said, there was more than 100 kids in the high school, so there's room for more students.

And overall, Burke residents are receptive to the idea of a joint-powers agreement with South Central, the board said Monday night. Initially, people have questions, but once the arrangement is explained, they are comfortable. And the students are excited for the possibility to attend classes with the same kids they play sports with, Person said.

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And Person said taking on South Central students would benefit the Burke district, too.

At a set tuition rate - proposed $10,000 per student - Burke could likely add more electives for high school students to choose from.

Currently, Person said, Burke wants to offer more courses but there are not enough students to spread out among them. With dozens more students, the possibilities are endless.

"We are excited about the idea of having, at the high school level for example, 20 to 30 more students to put in that grid and our kids will have more - all of the kids in the school ,ours and yours - will have more and have more choice, which improves the educational opportunities for everybody."

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