Between the Lines

Between the Lines by David Lias Ask many South Dakotans which city in the state stands out as a model of economic success, and they�ll likely say Mitchell.

The town has been booming in recent years. There�s the new Cabela�s store, which attracts people from all over the region.

There�s a new super Wal-Mart. The place is huge.

There�s at least two or three new motels, new restaurants, and there�s talk of the possible construction of a convention center in the city.

Mitchell is a much different place than when Cindy and I lived there for nearly seven years, beginning in the late 1980s.

Back then, Mitchell was very similar to practically every other small city in South Dakota. Sure, it had more retail businesses than a small town. It had more attractions (like the World�s Famous Corn Palace) and a stable manufacturing sector.

After we had lived in a Mitchell for a year or two, long enough to really get to know the place, we realized something. It didn�t change much from year to year. Things pretty much remained static, and you couldn�t help but sense that people were struggling just to keep everything on an even keel.

Mitchell is in South Dakota after all. There was no World Wide Web at the time � dot.com companies weren�t falling by the wayside like today. But a national recession sent agriculture prices plummeting, and it didn�t take long before we were in economic times that were very similar to now. Except for war. That would come a few years later.

But today, with all that economic growth, Mitchell�s certainly shaken itself out of those doldrums.

Hasn�t it?

As you read this, one of Mitchell�s three elementary schools is hanging on by a thread. The Mitchell School Board has already cut its budget by slightly more than $300,000. This week, it agreed to opt out of the state�s property tax freeze to the tune of $700,000 as a way to hopefully save the school.

How can this be? All of that progress, all of those new businesses, all of that new spending going on in the Mitchell School District. And it�s facing a financial crisis � one so severe that it could force the closing of an elementary school.

Surely Mitchell is at an advantage over other South Dakota cities. It would be easy to assume that eventually it can just �grow� its way out of this problem.

A question that�s arisen at several of the Mitchell board�s recent meetings is whether that city�s recent growth would change the district�s financial situation in future years, since state funding for schools is on a per student basis.

Mitchell School Board members said that the recent growth has not helped the district and they doubted there would be an improvement based on long-range projections.

Despite an increase in Mitchell�s population, the school has lost 350 students in the last six years.

�People are having less kids,� a Mitchell school official said recently. �Since we get paid a per student income, we�ve lost close to $900,000. Not because the town didn�t grow or because property taxes didn�t go up, but because we don�t have as many students.�

He noted that a study of Mitchell�s population trends projects that people under the age of 18 will flat-line during the next 10 years, while the 65 and older population will grow 2 percent, from 23 percent of the population, to 25 percent.

�Our population increase will probably be from retired people,� he said. �I hope that we get more families to move in.�

In many ways, I guess Mitchell is still similar to the rest of us, despite its fantastic leaps in progress in recent years.

Which, naturally, is a bit scary. Vermillion and Wakonda and Tyndall and Viborg and Centerville and Irene admittedly aren�t centers of great economic growth. Not one could brag of being boom town like Mitchell.

And ironically, many of the smaller towns in the region are desperately trying to hang on to their schools, with townsfolk treating them not so much as a place of learning but more as a security blanket for their way of life.

And at the same time, those same demographic trends are working to pry loose the grip that communities traditionally have had on their schools.

Small town populations are shrinking. Those who are left are likely of retirement age. Younger couples are choosing to have smaller families.

In a state that funds its schools on a per student basis, that means financial trouble ahead. Not only in a boom town like Mitchell, but also in school districts all around us, including ours.

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