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Tripp-Delmont School Board tables vote on consolidation preference

TRIPP--On Monday, the Tripp-Delmont School Board uttered the single word it has been avoiding for months: dissolution. Riding a wave of uncertainty concerning which school district Tripp-Delmont would consolidate with should a proposed opt out fa...

Tripp-Delmont School Board President Jeff Kramer, left, and Superintendent Gail Swenson, right, discuss the district's preference for a school to consolidate with at Monday night's board meeting in Tripp. (Caitlynn Peetz/Republic)
Tripp-Delmont School Board President Jeff Kramer, left, and Superintendent Gail Swenson, right, discuss the district's preference for a school to consolidate with at Monday night's board meeting in Tripp. (Caitlynn Peetz/Republic)

TRIPP-On Monday, the Tripp-Delmont School Board uttered the single word it has been avoiding for months: dissolution.

Riding a wave of uncertainty concerning which school district Tripp-Delmont would consolidate with should a proposed opt out fail, the board briefly discussed the possibility of saying "goodbye" to its district at its regularly scheduled meeting at the Tripp school's gym.

The talk comes as a result of Tripp-Delmont's falling enrollment, as the district has lost 38 percent of its student body in the past 15 years. In 2000, there were 296 students enrolled. Recently, Superintendent Gail Swenson said 159 were enrolled for the 2016-2017 school year.

The board had planned to vote on a consolidation preference Monday night, but instead tabled the action until further information can be gathered from the Armour and Parkston school districts-the two districts Swenson contacted regarding the possibility of consolidation prior to the meeting.

Swenson said she reached out to the Parkston and Armour school districts several weeks ago and revisited the conversation with each last week. She received information from Parkston, but not Armour, regarding a possible consolidation.

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One board member was disappointed in the lack of details.

"I'm getting to the point where I'm like, 'Why give one district all of our money?' Not everyone can chomp at the bit and say, 'We want you because of your money,' " Board Member Ronda Nuss said. "Let's spread the wealth, because we know not everyone is going to go where we choose. As much as I don't want to do it ... I thought we were coming here where we had two options and we don't. We've got Parkston or we've got to dissolve."

Swenson said her "gut feeling" after a final talk with Armour school officials was that Armour was not interested in furthering consolidation talks, though it was not said directly. Swenson said she told school officials that the board was planning to vote on a consolidation preference Monday night, but needed more information from Armour in order to make a fair, well-informed decision. She also mentioned Tripp-Delmont's "non-negotiable" point: it wants to have elementary students, to some extent, in Tripp.

"Andrea (Wright, Armour superintendent) told me that in recent conversations that she's had, she didn't think that would fly, and she didn't think consolidation with us would fly either," Swenson said.

But rather than assume Armour is not interested from its lack of response, fellow board member Carrie Reiner suggested tabling the vote to collect more information, including having a joint school board meeting with Parkston to ask questions and hear answers face-to-face. Reiner said she did not feel she had enough details to make a decision on a consolidation preference.

Consolidation talks between school districts thus far has been between a handful of representatives from each board, forming a "consolidation committee," which has left some school board members to base their decisions based solely on information relayed from members of that committee.

School Board President Jeff Kramer said having a joint school board meeting, on a date to be determined, "puts everybody on a fair playing field."

"Is it frustrating (tabling the vote)? Yes. It's been a frustrating process from the beginning," Kramer said after the meeting. "But it's also a big decision we have to make as a board and we want to make sure we have all the facts before we make that decision. I would much rather have this board be on 100 percent than have a 3-2 vote. Even though we're on an accelerated timeline, that doesn't take away from our board doing their due diligence."

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But, the board said, it's important to remember that a consolidation is plan B. The district first is focusing on opting out of state-mandated tax limits, which would allow the district to raise taxes. Tripp-Delmont can currently collect $300,000 in taxes, but it could rise to $600,000, if approved.

According to information provided by the school board, should an additional $300,000 opt out be accepted, a typical resident's property taxes would double. So, if a person's home in the Tripp-Delmont school district is valued at $100,000, they are currently paying $176.20 in taxes to the district per year. Should the opt out be passed, the same person would pay $352.40 per year, or 96 cents each day, in taxes to the district.

If the board were to secure an opt out, Swenson said, she believes it would need to happen by the coming spring. The district's current opt out spanned seven years, and it is unclear how long the proposed opt out would last. Swenson said the additional opt out wouldn't necessarily solve the district's issues regarding enrollment, but "buy some time" for the board to create a better solution, whether it be a more in-depth and leisurely look at possible consolidations or finding a way to bring more students into the district. Swenson said at the $300,000 level, she "doesn't think we could keep the school going."

"There's definitely a lot of balls to juggle and keeping the plates spinning," Swenson said. "Last year, when we started informal discussions, we thought we had all of this time to deal with and after the legislative session, everything changed. We thought we had time to make a leisurely plan, and now everybody is so stressed about it."

Related Topics: SCHOOL BOARDPARKSTON
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