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Public wants Tripp-Delmont schools to stay

TRIPP -- Comments from attendees of a Tripp-Delmont school board meeting Monday included suggestions to raise taxes and lay off teachers, but one theme was present throughout: locals want to keep the school.

Tripp-Delmont Superintendent Gail Swenson uses a water bottle as a visual representation of school funding Monday during a public information meeting at the Tripp-Delmont gymnasium in Tripp. (Jake Shama/Republic)
Tripp-Delmont Superintendent Gail Swenson uses a water bottle as a visual representation of school funding Monday during a public information meeting at the Tripp-Delmont gymnasium in Tripp. (Jake Shama/Republic)

TRIPP - Comments from attendees of a Tripp-Delmont school board meeting Monday included suggestions to raise taxes and lay off teachers, but one theme was present throughout: locals want to keep the school.

The school board met in front of a crowd of more than 200 people on Monday in the Tripp-Delmont gymnasium in Tripp to discuss the district's options amid declining enrollment. After a presentation about tax hikes via an opt-out, consolidation or dissolution, everyone who opined said higher taxes or even teacher cuts would be preferable to losing the school in Tripp.

"These are all things we need to think about, but I think the main thing that we need to come together and agree on is we're going to do everything in our power to keep this school open for as long as we can," said Charlene Bietz, a Tripp resident at the meeting whose two boys attended the district.

In the last 15 years, Tripp-Delmont has lost 38 percent of its student body. In 2000, there were 296 students. As of Monday, 159 were enrolled.

Some of the decline is due to open enrollment, in which students who would typically attend Tripp-Delmont decides to attend another nearby. This year, 11 students have open enrolled to other schools, according to information presented at the meeting. Meanwhile, one new student has open enrolled into Tripp-Delmont.

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The total students as of fall 2015 who open enrolled to other schools was 49, according to the Department of Education.

Superintendent Gail Swenson, who delivered the presentation, said there is not a magic number of students who would have to enter the school district to end the problems, but stopping the decline is the first step.

"I do know if we can put our finger in the dyke and stop the exodus, that would help us with our declining enrollment," Swenson said.

One option is opting out of state-mandated tax limits, which would allow the district to raise taxes. Tripp-Delmont can currently bring in $300,000 in taxes, but it could rise to $600,000, if approved.

Other options include consolidated classrooms, in which students of multiple grade levels are taught at the same time, teacher cuts, moving to a four-day school week - likely Tuesday through Friday - consolidation or a combination of any of the options.

Another possibility is dissolution. If the board decides dissolving is the most prudent action, a plan could be adopted by the board by June 2017, with a vote following 180 days later. The district would likely dissolve by June 30, 2018.

Funding is partially determined on a two-year average, Swenson said, so a school in slow but consistent decline, like Tripp-Delmont, is at a disadvantage compared to a student that may gain or lose a few students each year.

But enrollment isn't the only issue for the district. Swenson said new laws passed by the Legislature, particularly Senate Bill 131, which established a target teacher salary of $48,500 and a target student-to-teacher ratio of 12:1, have had a massive impact.

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According to new funding calculations, Tripp-Delmont was approved for $1.09 million. Before that number was given to the district on Aug. 23, the school board already approved a budget of $2.12 million.

One attendee, Russell Graeff, decided to take the issue into his own hands by announcing his plans to run for state Senate to represent District 19 in the future.

"I absolutely will do everything I can in order to undo any messes that are there to help the districts to survive," Graeff said.

The school board is seeking more comments from members of the district before moving forward, but from the start of the meeting, Swenson made it clear that the district would do whatever is best for the kids, and Tripp Mayor Victor Olson reinforced the point.

"I feel we have a great board, and they're going to do their best for the kids," Olson said.

The district last consolidated 26 years ago, when schools in Tripp and Delmont merged to create the modern Tripp-Delmont School District.

"When they consolidated, they thought it would be good for about 10 years, and it's lasted 26 years," Swenson said.

Swenson said the district intends to keep a presence in Tripp, likely at least an elementary school, but so far, the public has thrown its support behind staying.

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