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Seeking tech school efficiency

The efficient use of taxpayer dollars should be the guiding principle in the ongoing scuffle over who should govern the state's technical schools, Tad Perry told The Daily Republic's editorial board Wednesday.

The efficient use of taxpayer dollars should be the guiding principle in the ongoing scuffle over who should govern the state's technical schools, Tad Perry told The Daily Republic's editorial board Wednesday.

Perry is the executive director of the South Dakota Board of Regents, which governs the state's six public universities. He said the best and most efficient way to govern the four tech schools is to either leave them under the authority of local school boards and the Department of Education or, if push comes to shove, bring them into the regental system with the universities.

Creating a new state board to govern the tech schools, as was unsuccessfully proposed during the most recent legislative session, would duplicate the mission of the regents and cause inefficiencies in higher education, according to Perry.

"The question really is, do you want a duplicative structure and the cost to go with it, and the disconnectedness that goes with it," Perry said, "or do you want something that is more effective in the integrating of the education system, and more cost efficient as a result of the integration?"

The regents currently have written agreements with the tech schools that define the roles of each party and help "provide a seamless higher education interface between the (technical) institutes and the public universities," according to language in the regents' agreement with Mitchell Technical Institute. The other tech schools are in Watertown, Sioux Falls and Rapid City.

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Perry said the regents were happy with the agreements and viewed them as providing "a way to do business that was going to advantage both parties." Others have argued that tech schools are overlooked and underfunded by the state and that the creation of a new state board to govern the tech schools might help.

Legislation to create such a board was adopted this year by the Legislature but vetoed by Gov. Mike Rounds. The governor said in his written veto message that creating a new board would violate the state constitution, because the constitution gives sole control of post-secondary education institutions to the Board of Regents.

Perry agrees with Rounds and said if the movement persists for a new method of tech school governance, the regents will go to court to assert their constitutional authority over the tech schools.

"The issue is not the language in the constitution -- it is really what underpins that language, which is do you create duplicative structures of education systems that are not coordinated or integrated in the delivery structure?" Perry said. "And that's exactly what the founding fathers tried to avoid by putting the language that they did into the constitution."

If a court were to uphold Rounds' and Perry's reading of the constitution, the tech schools could be brought into the regental system -- something the tech schools, by and large, do not want.

The way forward, as Perry sees it, is to discuss with the tech schools a "mutually agreeable way to accomplish the objectives that they've laid out."

"If there's a will to do that, I think that's the better pathway. The board thinks that's a better pathway," Perry said. "The litigation path is kind of a last resort."

Perry said he has heard two main objectives from the four tech school presidents, all of whom he has visited in recent weeks. Those objectives are more funding, which Perry said can best be achieved by joining together rather than "going into separate corners"; and retaining the mission of the tech schools as distinct from the mission of the universities.

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If no agreement can be reached and the issue has to go to court, Perry said, "you can't wait until fall to do that." He said waiting until that time could prolong the issue until the next legislative session and cause both sides to go before lawmakers with nothing concrete to work with.

Perry sees the governance issue as crucial to the future of higher education funding in the state, partly because he thinks coordinated management is necessary to prevent costly overlapping of programs and degrees between tech schools and public universities.

Perry said Southeast Technical Institute in Sioux Falls and Western Dakota Technical Institute in Rapid City have the most overlap in programs with the public universities.

He cited examples in other states where technical schools have evolved first into technical colleges, then into community colleges, and finally into community colleges offering four-year degrees. An evolutionary progression of that type blurs the line between technical schools and universities, Perry said, and creates unneeded repetition in the delivery of higher education.

"The only way that doesn't take place is when you have a governance system that focuses upon the maintenance of the missions of the institutions and keeps things in check," Perry said.

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