Editorial by the Plain Talk To say that the March 22 meeting of the Vermillion School Board was filled with irony is a bit of an understatement.

Early in the meeting, Superintendent Bob Mayer publicly praised Sally Stoll for her achievements in the classroom.

Stoll, a seventh-grade science instructor at Vermillion Middle School, was chosen as one of 95 teachers in the nation to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

It provided a brief, positive spin to school board meetings that haven�t been all that fun lately. The March 22 meeting perhaps, was one of the most painful of the year.

Later in the meeting, you see, the school board had to RIF (reduction in force) the contracts of five teachers, and cut two additional positions of teachers who are voluntarily leaving employment with the school district.

The school board also reduced the contracts of five other school district employees.

The K-12 enrollment hasn�t changed much in the school district in the last five years. It totaled 1,386 in fiscal year 1997, according to the state department of education. It peaked to 1,428 in FY98, and then began a gradual slide. In FY2002, enrollment settled at 1,379.

The general state aid allocation to the Vermillion district has grown significantly in that five year time frame � from $1,765,937 in FY97, to $2,808,861 in FY2002.

That�s an increase of 59 percent.

So why is the school district suffering fiscal problems?

Probably because the only reason that general state aid allocations to school districts have increased in recent years is because the state had to make those increases. And they�re still inadequate.

A cash-strapped Vermillion School District hasn�t been able to put a brake on spending as it provides its students with all of the required classes and programs they need for success.

Total general fund expenditures were $5.6 million in FY97 in the district. They�ve grown every year since. In FY2002, they exceeded $6.2 million.

In 1990, a South Dakota student could graduate from high school with 16 credits. Next year, a senior must complete 22 credits.

The list of classes required by the state board of education continues to grow. Students hoping to attend a South Dakotas university must also meet additional requirements in math and science set by the South Dakota Board of Regents.

University, college and technical school admission requirements are growing more and more stringent.

We won�t even begin to talk about No Child Left Behind. It�s sufficient to say it appears to be a lofty federal program complete with many legitimate goals but lacking in one key area � funding.

How have we reacted to all of these changes in local education?

While our school system is facing a growing number of financial challenges, we aren�t stepping up to meet them.

Our �local effort,� calculated annually to help derive the amount of state aid to the Vermillion District, has gone down, not up.

Our local effort was just over $3 million in FY97. It�s declined every year since, and took one of its biggest drops a couple years ago. It was at $2.57 million in FY 2001. In FY2002, it fell to $2.39 million.

We have pitched in big bucks in a more indirect way. The school board has been forced to spend down the district�s general fund reserves � its �rainy day fund,� so to speak.

The reserve totaled approximately $2.5 million in FY97, and grew to $2.6 million in FY99. In FY2002, there was only $860,000 left in that fund.

Our rainy day fund is just about gone. State aid isn�t increasing at an adequate rate to keep the district�s general fund in the black for long.

What happens next is, sadly, out of the school board�s hands. Sure, they�ll continue to find ways to save; they�ll spend down the reserve and cut more staff.

Eventually, however, the only solution may rest with all of us. Eventually it will be time to boost our local effort by considering an opt-out of the property tax freeze.

It�s an idea that has been rejected twice by citizens in the school district in the last eight years.

It�s time for people to begin thinking of the consequences, however, of ignoring the district�s financial plight.

The Vermillion Plain Talk editorials reflect the opinion of Plain Talk editor David Lias. You may contact him at david.lias@plaintalk.net.

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