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Tripp-Delmont district's timeline extends with projections from ASBSD

TRIPP--The Tripp-Delmont School Board greeted attendees of its Monday meeting with good news. According to projections presented by the board, the district will be able to operate at least through the year 2020, whereas, when the district began d...

Tripp-Detmont Superintendent Gail Swenson speaks during a school board meeting Monday night at the Tripp school's gym. (Caitlynn Peetz/Republic)
Tripp-Detmont Superintendent Gail Swenson speaks during a school board meeting Monday night at the Tripp school's gym. (Caitlynn Peetz/Republic)

TRIPP-The Tripp-Delmont School Board greeted attendees of its Monday meeting with good news.

According to projections presented by the board, the district will be able to operate at least through the year 2020, whereas, when the district began discussions about its future, it believed it had two years to operate before its general fund runs dry.

The news, which comes from information the district gathered from the Associated School Boards of South Dakota, gives Tripp-Delmont breathing room to pursue an additional opt out and create a thorough "plan B"-a consolidation plan with another area district.

But the figures aren't absolute.

"That's our good news," Tripp-Delmont School District Superintendent Gail Swenson said. "While I'd love to be able to stand up here and say these numbers are absolute ... we really don't have any control. We are controlled so much by what happens in Pierre."

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Between 2000 and 2016, Tripp-Delmont lost approximately 54 percent of its student body, with enrollment dropping from 296 students to 162, prompting consolidation talks. Following the passage of a half-percent sales tax increase intended to bolster South Dakota teacher salaries, Swenson hoped the district would receive more state funding, but the district received one of the lowest totals of new money in the state at $14,690.

Originally, before the teacher funding formula was updated by the South Dakota Legislature, Tripp-Delmont thought it was operating on an extended timeline with several years before a consolidation or dissolution would be urgent. But the low allocation of new money severely altered the district's timeline. Then, the district believed it must acquire a new opt out, consolidate or dissolve in the next two years, a projection that doubled Monday.

Before a consolidation, the board is focused on preserving its district by opting out of state-mandated tax limits, which would allow the district to raise taxes. Tripp-Delmont can currently collect $300,000 in tax dollars, but it could rise to $600,000, if approved.

According to information provided by the board, with the current opt out, the district would have approximately $2.039 million in total revenue for fiscal year 2018, compared to the $1.696 million the district has budgeted for fiscal year 2017. But the projected total revenue in the district is expected to continue dwindling consistently through fiscal year 2022, when the board projects to have about $1.078 million-the lowest total revenue shown on documents provided by the board, which go back through fiscal year 2013.

Should the district pass an additional $300,000 opt out, the board's projections show the district could operate for an additional school year, through 2021.

'I want to keep our school open'

With prompting from the public to disclose information about if and where the board intends to make cuts to its general fund-specifically to staff, the School Board President Jeff Kramer assured the public "everything is on the table to ensure the district remains open."

The new funding formula passed by the South Dakota Legislature sets a target student-to-teacher ratio. In schools with more than 600 students, the target ratio is one teacher for every 15 students, whereas in a district of less than 200 students-like Tripp-Delmont-the ratio is one teacher per 12 students. For the 2016-2017 school year, the student-teacher ratio at Tripp-Delmont is about six-to-one.

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And, Amy Brown, a teacher at Tripp-Delmont, voiced strong support for the board, even if it means losing her job.

"If we have to cut teachers, I'm on the chopping block-that's fine," Brown said. "I want to keep our school open and that's what we in the cheap seats need to remember. Our priority is to keep this school open."

And, Swenson added, every teacher in the district is important, and not all are counted in the state's teacher funding formula.

Special education, Title I, pre-kindergarten and colony teachers do not receiving funding for their salaries from the state, according to Swenson, but are included in the student-to-teacher ratio, putting school districts at a "severe disadvantage," especially for districts like Tripp-Delmont, which will rely heavily on its pre-kindergarten program to draw families into the district and appeal to the same families who may be considering other districts.

"You can't do it-you can't operate a district on that ratio," Swenson said. "We have some kids come in that are reading, and a majority of them that are way behind in their skills, so this district chooses to offer pre-k."

But, regardless of what the board considers good news in an extended timeline, Swenson was not satisfied.

An open opponent to the new funding formula, Swenson again voiced her opinions Monday night, saying that every change the legislature imposed "affected us adversely."

"If they really wanted to improve teacher salaries ... if that was truly their goal, then they should have funded the original formula that came into effect in the '90s," Swenson said. "My opinion wasn't their true goal. Their true goal was to reduce the number of school districts in the state."

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