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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Madison School Board Expenditures Supporting Opt-Out Campaign?

I've been reading and re-reading the headline article in Monday's print Madison Daily Leader. "School to Recruit Opt-Out Committee," reports Chuck Clement:

The members of the Madison School Board and other school officials met on Saturday morning to organize a campaign for passing a new property-tax opt-out with a public vote.

...The supporters of the ballot measure will depend on a group of volunteers who will make up an opt-out committee and campaign for its approval, according to school board member Tom Farrell.

Farrell said officials would try to recruit as many volunteers as possible, tapping many of the same persons who helped pass the opt-out measure four years ago.

Farrell said the school district was limited to spending public money on the legally-required [sic] advertising that announces the election.

"The district can't spend money on making flyers and sending them home with students or spend money on other campaigning," Farrell said. You can't use school dollars to support the 'yes' vote because that's illegal" [Chuck Clement, "School to Recruit Opt-Out Committee," Madison Daily Leader, 2010.02.22, p. 1].

Farrell knows his SDCL 12-27-20. But I wonder: the board's Saturday meeting was an official meeting, with a quorum and minutes and everything. I would assume board members were paid their usual per-meeting fee of $35. Superintendent Schaefer and other staff were present, so I assume they were on the clock. The participants in this meeting, all drawing public salaries, drew up a list of possible committee members to work for the approval of the opt-out.

The school board's purpose in this meeting certainly seems to have been to work toward influencing the outcome of the opt-out vote. And if we followed the local rules, we paid our board members (and arguably our school staff) to have this meeting.

So someone parse this out for me: did our school board just expend funds to influence an election or not?


  1. The board is the one trying to get the funding passed. Aren't they influencing the outcome by even proposing the opt out in the first place?

  2. Interesting point, Mike! Indeed, there's probably a butterfly effect: the board can sneeze and have some effect on a vote. But proposing an opt-out, referring it to a vote, and even providing factual information are fine. It's recruiting a "vote yes!" campaign committee that I'm wondering about. Any thoughts there?

  3. I helped defeat 2 opt outs, one when i was a school board member.
    There were several good reasons for doing this. One, the people who would pay for it were people who owned land, or bricks and mortar. In other words a farm or a business. Many businesses are being squeezed already, they are asked for donations (which they are usually happy to give), and it is very difficult to raise prices to compensate when people can drive 40 miles and get something cheaper. Farmers are at the mercy of the weather and the markets. Once upon a time when an average town had farmers and merchants, and little industry it might have been reasonable to fund such things with property taxes. No more. As a farmer and a business owner i would be giving school staff a raise and giving myself a pay cut. Is that wise? In order to make that decision I had to look at the school budget and salaries. I found that begining teachers made quite a bit more than the average salary in our county, and pretty good benefits. I did not and do not think they were overpaid, but I think they were paid a fair wage and able to live comfortably in our community. And the bulk of the people who supported it, only paid property taxes on their homes.
    One of the glaring problems with the budget was our retire/rehire policy. If a staff member 'retired' and was then rehired for 3 years, they received the bump in salary that was negotiated that year, the ability to collect state retirement PLUS the equivalent of nearly one year's salary spread out over three years, courtesy of the district. They felt it saved money, but actually it cost a lot and every year more people were elibible. Take a salary that is likely in the 40,000 range and multiply it by 10. Sometimes we have had that many people collecting at a time.
    Besides that, if we had a really good teacher, i wanted them to stay. If they were not good i did not want to reward them to leave.
    But back to the original point. The teachers unions spent some serious $$$ to encourage a 'yes' vote. But while the rest of the board were definitely proponents I do not recall if they spent any actual money in a campaign. If they did, yes, it is wrong. A board member is supposed to represent the electorate, not the school

  4. My experience through three opt out attempts was that the District, itself, has an obligation to inform the public as to why the opt out is unanimously supported by the board, how it might affect property taxes and reasons for the funding request. The district can advertise to voters as long as the publication doesn't say, "Vote Yes" and is factual and informative.

    Forming an Opt Out Committee that might urge voters to support the actions of the school board could have easily been done with three board members or less in a closed committee meeting, so that a quorum didn't exist and no public meeting would need to be called, but they decided to be very public.

    I admire the board's decision to keep their actions entirely above board and open through a public meeting, although the four members who attended can be compensated $35 each for attending, so there is minor expense. Staff who attend special meetings are not additionally compensated other than mileage if they live out of town.

    Don't forget the history of Madison Central's opt out attempts. $460,000 in April 2002-defeated, $295,000 in September 2002-narrowly defeated, deep cuts of $1.5 Million followed the second attempt that reduced two grade school principals, several teaching positions, education programs and extra curricular activities and services. We're not the same district we used to be.

    The third attempt for $250,000 in April 2006 passed, adding about $52 a year to the average $100,000 home's tax bill. Declining enrollment due to lower birth rates hasn't gone away and the State keeps trying to reduce money for K-12 Education.

    I respect the Madison Central School Board for taking this vote directly to the taxpayers, rather than spending more money on notices and petition drives. They are being fiscally responsible.

  5. Rod, I agree with most of what you said. Openness good, information good, public vote good.

    But the legal question remains: If the board has an official meeting to organize a "Vote Yes" campaign, does that violate SDCL 12-27-20?

  6. I've read the minutes of the meeting and nowhere does it indicate forming a "Vote Yes" Opt Out Committee. In fact, it simply says, "A discussion regarding the opt out election was held with administrative staff."

    I'm guessing that Daily Leader reporter, Chuck Clement, blended a combination of his interpretation of the actual meeting with his follow-up interview with individual board member, Tom Farrell, to come up with his misleading headline. You can't believe everything you read.

  7. Rod, can you be more specific in exactly what extracurricular activities were cut? Any sports programs?

    It bothers me that the more academic of extracurricular activities seem to be the first cut, while sports are actually added on. Destination Imagination (used to be Odyssey of the Mind) is a wonderful program and used to be barely supported by the school system via the gifted ed teacher and the school buying some of the problems. We have heard how the debate program has declined recently. These are things that bother me, as not all kids are gifted sports wise, but these same kids could benefit greatly from activities that support creativity, public speaking and debate skills etc.

    I'm not directing the second paragraph to just Rod. It is directed to the school district.

    And we have not had a credible explanation of the recent retire/rehire of the supt that appears to have been a done deal ahead of time, while the public was led to believe that no one knew a reason why the supt would quit in the middle of the year.

    These are just things that bother some voters when asked again to approve an opt out.

    Linda M

  8. Linda: Here are a few athletic cuts from memory, part of the $1.5 Million reduction plan 2002-2006. All 6th Grade Athletics were eliminated and remain gone today, Middle School PE teacher cut, Assistant Activities Director cut, athletic trainer cut, athletic security for events cut, 9th, JV and Varsity travel together, cut all practices at the community center, Middle School Gymnastics program cut, double the price of Activity Passes and general admissions were increased.

    There were many other cuts such as all field trips eliminated, Grades 1-5 were reduced from five sections to four (larger class sizes), gifted program cut, the volunteer coordinator and a host of educators were eliminated that have reduced opportunities for kids, but helped balance the budget.

    Overall, any school district's budget is about 82% salaries for educators, principals, support staff, bus drivers, custodians and others who work for the district. Only about 4% of any school's budget is for extra curricular activities which includes all athletics, band, chorus, school play, debate, oral interp and other activities. It seemed like out of $6 Million, we spent around $263,000 for activities, which is 4.39%. Those numbers are a couple of years old. Hope that helps answer your question.

  9. How many of you reading this blog have volunteered your time and talents to your local school district?

  10. I worked as an unpaid assistant debate coach for several years. I'm available to help kids learn extemp, oratory, policy debate, and Lincoln-Douglas debate. When I met with Mr. Schaefer and Mrs. Knowlton in 2008, I said that if they needed help to save Mundt, they could call me. Strangely, they didn't.

    But everyone, regardless of whether they've worked or volunteered for the school district, is welcome in this discussion of the school district our tax dollars pay for. And the main question is this: Is it legal for the school board to conduct an official meeting to organize a "Vote Yes" committee?

  11. i refused payment the three years i was on the school board, i figured if i did not vote for raies it was only fair for me o make a sacrifice too.
    i won't go into details, but believe me when i say i did volunteer a lot when my kids were in school. and i still volunteer at the parochial elementary library.


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