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Voters get final say in fate of area district's opt-out plan

WINNER -- With his school district facing an accelerated drop in enrollment, Superintendent Mike Hanson said the Winner School District was forced to ask for an opt-out sooner rather than later.

WINNER -- With his school district facing an accelerated drop in enrollment, Superintendent Mike Hanson said the Winner School District was forced to ask for an opt-out sooner rather than later.

The Winner school board passed a resolution Jan. 12 to put the $2.7 million opt-out -- up to $900,000 for each of three years -- to a public vote. Voting will take place from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday in Room 103 at the Winner School District Administration Building, 431 E. Seventh St.

This will be the Winner district's first opt-out and Hanson believes its chances of passing are good.

"We're like many other schools," said Hanson. "Seventy to 75 percent of schools in the state have attempted, or do have, opt-outs."

Hanson, who formerly worked as high school principal for five years, is in his first year as superintendent.

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Initial plans were for the district to wait a bit longer before asking residents for more money, said Hanson, but the loss of 52 students -- 36 to open enrollment and 16 for other reasons-- together with a corresponding loss of $1.3 million in state funding made that impossible.

The Winner community, according to the 2000 Census, has 3,137 residents, and the school district has 751 students: 250 high school students; 189 middle school students, and 312 elementary students in one main, and two small, K-8 rural schools.

"The opt-out offers us the opportunity to keep excellent programs in place, move our district forward, helps us to stabilize our financial condition and look forward the future," said Hanson.

Without the cash programs, cuts are likely that could impede the educational process, he said. There are also the ongoing expenses of salaries, utility bills and fuel costs.

Another drain on district finances has been more than $100,000 in attorney and other fees associated with implementing a consent decree in the 2007 Antoine v. Winner discrimination lawsuit against the district.

"We have no surplus; we currently have about $12,000 in our reserve funds," Hanson said.

Opt-out money also would allow the district to put some money aside for contingencies.

"For a district our size, (only) $12,000 is very dangerous," he said. State law also prevents the district from moving money between its capital outlay budget, which is stronger, and other funds.

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While federal stimulus funds will be welcome, Hanson said he won't add those to his budget until he knows for certain how much his district will receive.

"We've been deficit spending," said Rocky Blare, who has been chairman for 12 of his 17 years on the school board. "We've known we would opt out, and we made that clear to the public, but we thought it would be next year."

Staff and program cuts have already been made, he said.

"We probably should have opted out a few years ago," he said.

The additional money will allow the district to keep the curriculum offerings it has without diluting those programs, he said.

"If you have class sizes that are too large or you start losing key programs, that's a problem, but I don't foresee any of that," said Blare.

The district has had outstanding academic success, said Blare, ticking off accomplishments that include three Boys State governors, solid GPAs and meeting No Child Left Behind goals.

Regarding the $900,000-a-year request, Blare said, "We've also made it clear to the public that if we don't need that much -- if we only needed $700,000, for instance -- we would offer to not ask for that much."

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About 101 South Dakota districts have opted out of the state property tax freeze since 1996.

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