Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias I'm going out on a limb and predicting that patrons of the Wakonda School District will vote Jan. 16 to approve the issuing of bonds for improvements to Wakonda Public School.

I'm also predicting that while the vote may show overwhelming support for the school in the Wakonda community, it won't mean an end to the challenges currently facing the school and scores of other smaller public districts across the state.

One of the ultimate solutions may have to be that ugly "c" word � consolidation.

All of us in South Dakota eventually will find ourselves grappling with this issue because of pure demographics.

Gov. William Janklow noted in his State of the State address earlier this week that South Dakota faces "a time bomb" of demographic changes as the state's population grows older and fewer children are born in many areas of the state. He said only 49 school districts saw enrollments increase during the past five years, going up by 3,204 students, while the other 124 districts fell by 9,544 students.

Wakonda School District is with the majority of state schools with dwindling numbers. In 1994, Wakonda's fall enrollment was 227. Every year since, the district's student numbers have declined. This fall, the school began a new year with the fewest students it has had in seven years � 184.

So why pass a bond issue to improve the Wakonda school facility? We have to agree with those who claim that the building needs to be brought to modern educational standards. Otherwise, no surrounding school district would want to consolidate with Wakonda in the future.

Now that the South Dakota Legislature is in session, we'll be hearing a lot about state funding of schools, teacher salaries and other fiscal issues relating to education.

It is hoped that the debate that soon will ensue on what is best for our schools takes into account the potential concerns about the rising costs of education as well as the perceived inefficiencies of a large number of small school districts. These inefficiencies include reduced curricula, staff teaching subjects outside their areas of expertise, small pupil-teacher ratios, higher administrative costs per pupil, and difficulties in holding personnel.

That's why greater consolidation of South Dakota schools likely will receive more and more attention.

We have to point out that school district consolidation may not bring a great amount of fiscal savings. Our research indicates that consolidation may not result in fewer educational dollars being spent but it should improve the educational opportunities for the dollars spent. Reorganization may not be an economy measure in the sense of reducing total school expenditures and cutting local tax rates, but it is a means of getting more and better education from each tax dollar spent.

We also hope the Legislature remembers that increased spending on education won't necessarily improve the quality of education for students. Were this true, many of the smaller districts like Wakonda � with pupil expenditures greater than those of large districts � would be providing programs of exceptional quality. The fact of the matter is, however, that in most cases a high per pupil cost is necessary for a district to continue to exist because its small size makes it inefficient.

South Dakota, unfortunately, isn't a state that can afford a high per pupil cost.

Examples of what is likely to be the future trend in education are all around us. Two or three decades ago, a South Dakota farm family could make a living on a quarter section of land.

Today, a quarter section, at best, provides a supplement to one's income. Farmers have discovered that to operate at peak efficiency, they have to to expand their operations.

The consolidation of schools may likewise provide more economical operations. It would bring about new opportunities to save money by eliminating duplicated positions, by increasing pupil-teacher ratios, and perhaps provide some reductions of general costs.

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