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Tripp-Delmont focusing on an opt-out to save district amid falling enrollment

TRIPP -- After public survey results were collected and counted, one point was clear to the Tripp-Delmont School Board: the people want to keep the district alive, and they want to do it in the form of an opt out.

The Tripp-Delmont School Board listens as Bob Miller, left, a Tripp resident, talks during the public input session of the board meeting Wednesday night at the Tripp school's gym. (Caitlynn Peetz/Republic)
The Tripp-Delmont School Board listens as Bob Miller, left, a Tripp resident, talks during the public input session of the board meeting Wednesday night at the Tripp school's gym. (Caitlynn Peetz/Republic)

TRIPP - After public survey results were collected and counted, one point was clear to the Tripp-Delmont School Board: the people want to keep the district alive, and they want to do it in the form of an opt out.

At the board's regularly scheduled monthly meeting at the Tripp school's gym, the board reviewed the results of a public survey in regards to the district's possible consolidation, opt out or dissolution.

The conversations come as the result of falling enrollment, according to Superintendent Gail Swenson, as the school's total enrollment has sunk more than 20 percent in the past three years.

According to the results of a survey issued on August 29, the overwhelming majority of Tripp-Delmont residents want the school to stay, and they want to do so without a consolidation, if possible.

"(The survey results) give us a pretty good direction to go, and there were no surprises," Board President Jeff Kramer said. "None of this should surprise any of us, it's nothing we didn't see coming, but now we have a solid direction of where to go from here."

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In the survey, participants were asked to rate options on a scale of one, two or three, with one being the most favorable option and three the least.

Fourteen people chose dissolving the district as their top option, as opposed to 159 who indicated a new opt out would be the best route and 26 who favored consolidation. One hundred and twenty-five survey participants chose a consolidation as their preferred second option, should an opt out not be possible.

The survey also asked residents, if a consolidation were to occur, which neighboring district would be the most favored option. 71 chose Parkston, 58 Armour and 45 chose Scotland.

Similarly, residents indicated if the district dissolved, the majority would send their students to Parkston, Scotland or Armour.

And, though the board acknowledged most residents want to see an opt out - meaning a local government has made a decision to opt out of state-imposed limits on increases in annual property tax revenue - discussions about possible consolidations will continue with area districts.

"We'll continue forward with our consolidation plans," Kramer said. "If an opt-out fails, without that plan, we'd have to dissolve the district."

Swenson said she has been in contact with the school's attorney, who agrees the continued talks about possible consolidations, even if leaning toward an opt-out, is the smartest avenue to take moving forward.

The board described consolidation as an "emergency plan," to be utilized should an opt-out fail, leaving the district with no other option aside from dissolving - what Tripp-Delmont residents are generally against.

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But, now, Board Member Carrie Reiner said, the board needs to decide which district to construct that emergency plan with.

Conversations have been held with the Avon, Menno, Armour, Parkston and Scotland school districts, and on Wednesday night, the board said those districts have indicated they are still open to continuing conversations.

But, for some board members, it's not enough.

"They either need to commit or not. We can't decide we're going to consolidate with Parkston or with Scotland. They have to do that," Reiner said. "There has to be more than, 'The door's open.' We're past that. We need to know if they're going to do it or not."

And some in attendance agreed with the board. One resident said he believes an opt out will be difficult to land, unless the school were to make staff cuts to meet the state's recommended 12 students per teacher ratio. Now, with 157 students and 25 teachers, Tripp-Delmont's student-to-teacher ratio is 6:1. And still more argued in comments left on the public survey results that falling agriculture land values could potentially contribute to the district's ability to receive an opt out.

During a public input session that saw residents questioning whether the board has truly considered all of its options, the possibility of a four-day school week dominated conversations.

According to Swenson, a four-day week doesn't offer much for money saving options. But, it does have potential to attract more students - exactly what the district needs.

In information shared with Tripp-Delmont from the Bon Homme School District, Bon Homme saves approximately $16,600 in bus operations each year while running on a four-day school week, and about $17,000 on paraprofessional salaries. While utilizing a four-day week, most educators would work five days, as usual, but paraprofessionals and other speciality staff would work four days, if using the same model Bon Homme uses, the board said.

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"That's where the gold is," Swenson said. "It may not be in how much money we're saving in utilities or fuel, but if we can gain kids, that's where the gold is."

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