Governor Rounds hosts town hall meeting

“Putting kids first in education” was the theme of a Town Meeting in Philip hosted by Governor Mike Rounds and his staff.

School district patrons attending last Thursday’s meeting got a lesson on school district funding from the governor.

Rounds said he would present some figures, and then take questions from the audience. “We’re here to learn,” he said. “We’re here to learn what’s going right and what’s not.”

The first figures Rounds presented were demographic. Census figures show the population in the state growing older. “This is, and will continue to be, reflected in declining enrollment,” Rounds noted.

The numbers show 175,654 school-age children statewide in 1969 and 123,053 in 2003. “That’s 30% fewer kids being educated today than in 1969,” the governor said.

Meanwhile, staff has increased from 12,714 in 1969 to 17,425 in 2003. Rounds explained that some of the reasons for this are that we now have special education and school lunch programs. “This shows that we now have greater expectations,” he stated.

The governor then narrowed the focus of his presentation to the Haakon School District 27-1. The statistics he presented showed declining enrollments in the district for the past six years. The district’s enrollment has dropped by 34%, compared to 6% statewide.

Haakon 27-1 has one school within 25 miles and three within 50. Rounds then compared this with Milbank, where he had visited recently to discuss education. Milbank has 13 schools within the 50 mile radius.

“Now, which school is going to have the greater opportunity to share resources?” Rounds asked. “We’re going to try to do something about this with a sparsity factor.” The sparsity factor is a proposed method of providing more aid to education for geographically isolated schools. It was defeated in the 2004 legislative session.

He went on to explain that if current trends continue, by 2011 the Haakon school district will have lost another 35% of its students.

Reviewing state budget figures, Rounds asked, “As student populations decrease and elderly populations who need medical care increase, who will get the limited tax dollars?”

The governor next reviewed scores from standardized achievement tests, which showed local students scoring above average in the lower grades, then falling below average in high school.

Rounds listed the options for school districts facing declining enrollments and higher costs to educate students: do nothing, plan ahead, consolidate, dissolve the district, or consider funding options such as opt-outs.

“The operation of the school should not be the economic basis for a town,” Rounds stated. “If the community is economically viable, the school will be viable.”

The governor then took questions from the audience, assisted by state Secretary of Education Rick Melmer.

Melmer responded to a question about the federal No Child Left Behind program by saying, “In fact, this is not an unfunded mandate. [The federal government] really put their money where their mouth is.” He added that the program is targeted at the lowest performing kids.

Haakon District Superintendent Dr. Julie Ertz asked if the proposed sparsity factor would include penalties for districts with high budget reserves. “I disagree with that,” the governor responded. He said he feels the amount of reserves should be up to local districts and their patrons.

“What if you have a small school, but there’s no way they can combine?” Rounds asked. “I’m personally in favor of a sparsity factor.” He said the challenge will be that other districts won’t want money from the state aid formula taken away from their schools. “Where do we have the most votes?” he asked.

When school board president Craig Hanrahan asked if Rounds will put money in the budget for the sparsity factor, Rounds responded “I can’t commit to that.” He added that uncertainties with the results of the November election affects his budget planning.

Returning to how reserves may affect sparsity factor legislation, Rounds said he didn’t think the proposal to penalize districts with over 20% of their budgets in reserve was the main issue. The Haakon district has over 50% of their budget in reserve funds.

The governor presented information comparing Haakon’s mill levys to those in the districts of Dupree, Eagle Butte, Midland, Wall, and Kadoka. Only Kadoka’s school taxes were lower than Haakon’s.

The meeting ended with a discussion between Rounds and the audience about taxation and what may happen on the state level. Rounds said the state will not go broke if the sales tax on food is repealed, but it would cost the state $42,000,000 in revenue.

Philip Mayor John Hart added that it would mean a loss of services for Philip.

Rounds noted that each year, South Dakota ranks 49th or 50th in the amount of taxes paid by state citizens. “If I had my druthers, I’d reduce property taxes before I reduced anywhere else,” Rounds said. “I don’t support an income tax.”