Sometime soon people in the cities are going to stand up to the rural politicians. They are going to refuse to subsidize rural communities, and country schools with no students, and they are going to refuse to pander to rural political power. The cities are just going to say, "Okay, bring it on. We've got the votes" [from Sam Hurst, "South Dakota's Bridge to Nowhere: The Debate No One Wants to Have," The Dakota Day, 2008.12.18]
Nothing like a little budget crisis to put that rural–urban divide to the test. A group of Republican lawmakers have introduced House Bill 1182, which would raise the minimum enrollment for South Dakota's K-12 school districts from 100 to 195.
By my count, HB 1182 would require the consolidation or closing of 27 school districts, in addtion to the four already facing closure under the current 100-student minimum:
|District Name||K-12 Enrollment, Fall 2008|
|Big Stone City 25-1||144|
|Edmunds Central 22-5||136|
|Elk Mountain 16-2||28|
|Ipswich Public 22-6||102|
|Jones County 37-3||166*|
|Sanborn Central 55-5||189|
|White Lake 01-3||134|
|Willow Lake 12-3||194|
|*designated "sparse" district, FY2009.|
data compiled from "2008 Fall Enrollment: Public School Enrollments by District PK-12," South Dakota Department of Education, downloaded 2009.01.27
HB 1182 does perserve the sparsity exception, so Bison, Edgemont, and the six other districts asterisked above can keep their doors open... assuming Governor Rounds's request to do away with the sparsity funding factor doesn't kill them off.
I note also (as I'm sure do Superintendents Broome and Barondeau) that Burke and Frederick, each with fall enrollments of 195, find themselves one transfer, homeschooler, or small kindergarten class away from closure under this proposal.
The sponsors of HB 1182— Representatives Bolin, Curd, Cutler, Dreyer, Jensen, Kirkeby, Lederman, Lust, McLaughlin, Peters, Romkema, Sly, and Verchio and Senator Schmidt—are mostly Sioux Falls and Rapid City folks, although they do include reps from Canton and Hill City (enrollments 852 and 458, respectively). Every one of the sponsors is a Republican—you know, the party of Sarah Palin and small-town values.
Evidently, the value to these Republicans of the 27 small towns targeted by HB 1182 is less than $14.8 million a year, my rough estimate of the total state aid sent to those small, non-sparse school districts in FY 2008 (readers, please download the spreadsheets and check my math).
Of course, that savings estimate assumes we simply shut down those districts and the state saves every penny. In reality, the kids in Rutland, Corsica, Ipswich, and Waubay would still need books and teachers and classrooms. The districts that consolidate may close one or two buildings, but they'll have to expand the remaining ones and hire at least a few more teachers to accommodate the larger student bodies. So—wild guess—this second wave of forced consolidation in two years would only save half of that figure. And it's a fair bet that the Sioux Falls and Rapid City reps aren't looking to cut the budget; they want that $14.8 million redirected right to their districts.
The consolidation push from the big-town legislators may be following divide-and-conquer strategy: Keep eliminating the small schools in small enough chunks (under 100 was the limit set in 2007) that motivated legislators from affected districts can't outvote the legislators whose districts stand to gain from freeing up more money in the state education funding formula.
Sam Hurst was right. We do need an honest conversation about the viability of our remaining rural communities. We need to consider, as the Aberdeen American News did this week, whether the time has come to consolidate some of our county and local governments. We may need to reopen the question of whether South Dakota can support seven public university campuses.
At the same time, we need to carry out our constitutional obligation to educate every child in the state. HB 1182 would conslidate four school districts in District 8 alone, making it that much harder for families in Rutland, Ramona, Artesian, and Woonsocket to obtain for their children the education to which they are entitled. HB 1182 essentially says, "Your town is too small to save. Move somewhere bigger, where we can afford to educate your kids."
It's not an easy question to resolve. Let's see on which side of the rural-urban divide District 8 Representatives Fargen and Lange and Senator Olson will choose to stand.