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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Rutland Grumbles over Press; Madison and Hartford Whine over Competition

Rutland Superintendent Carl Fahrenwald spoke with Josh Verges of that Sioux Falls paper about open enrollment and school competition. However, the superintendent thought he was providing information for a news article, not an editorial. Dr. Fahrenwald lets me know that he found the word choice in Verges's Sunday article highly slanted.

Fahrenwald has an arguable point. The headline "Small Schools Paid Recruiting Bonus" misrepresents the school funding formula. The per-student allocation for a student whose family chooses to open enroll is no more a "bonus" than the per-student allocation for a student whose family moves to or procreates within a school district. Complaints about "Different student values in different districts" (one of the articles subheadings) are really complaints about the school funding formula, not open enrollment.

The article also refers to student recruitment by former Avon Superintendent and current state Secretary of Education) Tom Oster as "poaching," a fighting word among good South Dakota hunters.

Some of the language of the article seems to reflect the misunderstanding of economics exhibited by jealous school officials like Madison Superintendent Vince Schaefer and jealous lawmakers like Hartford's Deb Peters. "Officials from some larger districts say state rules give small schools an unfair advantage in the enrollment battle," writes Verges. What advantage? Show me one instance where a family has chosen a smaller school district over a larger district based on the fact that the smaller school will receive a larger per-student allocation from the state.

Fahrenwald says the article spends too much time portraying open enrollment as a turf war between districts and not enough time discussing the actual opportunities that drive open enrollment and the advantages families get from it. Verges does open with a mention of the convenience factor for some families. He acknowledges the position of the two largest school districts in the state, Sioux Falls and Rapid City, which argued last winter that Rep. Peters's anti-open-enrollment legislation was an unhealthy distraction from the effort to secure more funding for K-12 education.

Verges also balances the article with the perspective Parkston Superintendent Shayne McIntosh. Instead of whining like Rep. Peters that a neighboring district sends a bus to pick up open enrollees, McIntosh says, "We look at it a different way. Why are those kids leaving? What aren't we doing to keep them there?"

In a state full of Invisible-Hand-worshipping Republicans, Superintendents McIntosh and Fahrenwald should be heroes of the marketplace. They're not whining about other communities offering better educational opportunities (and I hear from locals that Chester sends a bus to Rutland to pick up open-enrollees, too). They're looking at their own resources and figuring out how to compete. Rutland has chosen to try to be a public magnet school. Rutland School knows that if they don't improve, innovate, and differentiate their services, they cease to exist. How's that for motivation?

If I were Madison or Hartford, I'd be embarrassed to complain about tiny schools like Rutland and Montrose cutting into my enrollment. I wouldn't respond by crying to Pierre. I'd hear Sean Connery asking me what are you prepared to do? If Rutland recruits one of my kids, I recruit five of theirs. If Rutland offers a stellar journalism program, I offer an even more stellar journalism program and a full-scale varsity debate program. If I'm losing students, I crank up the academic excellence at Madison to the point where you'd have to be crazy to go anywhere but our fair school.

And if some Madison kids still ride the Rutland bus, then I don't complain. I tell my school board and my neighbors my school offers the best education our resources can provide, accept that some parents disagree, and I sleep well at night.


  1. Several years ago, when Carl decided to start aggressively advertising Rutland and John Bjorkman started running ads for Oldham-Ramona on the radio and in the newspaper to attract students from other districts, the Madison Central School Board discussed the potential of creating a marketing budget. Dr. John Sweet wisely urged the board not to engage in tit-for-tat advertising because no matter how the largest district promotes itself in the smaller markets, it will come across as bullying the small schools. Instead, the district made a concerted effort to publicize its strengths and successes through local news media at no cost to taxpayers. We probably need legislation in the next session to prohibit school districts from spending taxpayer dollars for general promotional advertising in these times of extremely tight school budgets. Those dollars should be enhancing education for students, not spent on frivolous ads.

  2. Wow, Goldman has yet another idea for a state law micromanaging what local school boards and their administration are perfectly capable of deciding. I simply do not understand this mentality- independent school districts need more autonomy from the state and federal government, not less. Each school might handle this issue of advertising (and countless others) differently based on their own situation. This is the whole point of having different school districts. So you go right ahead and advertise too if you want, I promise I won't turn you in for bullying...

  3. Madison Central has the luxury of operating in a town with two media outlets apparently willing to offer favorable free coverage. Rutland has no such media outlets to play on its team. It's not inconceivable that Rutland and similar small districts might have to advertise to spread the word about their distinct advantages.

    I'd like to think that academic excellence will speak for itself (as does academic failure, such as Madison's loss of the Mundt tournament and imperilment of its charter National Forensic League membership). But I've grown up in Madison's media soup, where reaching the masses is easy.


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