Legislators unable to comfort local officials

Legislators unable to comfort local officials by David Lias Vermillion School Board members didn't have much reason to feel reassured after hearing from District 17's three representatives in the South Dakota Legislature.

Gov. Mike Rounds has proposed a plan that would send some extra money to the school district.

But the amount of revenue is small, and will easily be overtaken by increases in the costs of normal day-to-day items of the school district, from heating bills to health insurance.

District 17 Sen.-elect Ben Nesselhuf, D-Vermillion, said the governor's proposal raised questions rather than provided answers about future school funding.

"The first page of his presentation shows the increase he wants to give to the state aid formula, and just looking at this itself causes me some concern," he said. "We're looking at a supposed 2 percent increase, which amounts to $2 million, but I'm wondering what dollar figure we're looking at."

Nesselhuf pointed out other figures in the governor's proposal which appear to indicate that a 2.9 percent increase would equal $6 million.

He said his attempts to receive further clarity from the governor's office and the Legislative Research Council were unsuccessful.

"I'm pretty confused as to what we are basing any of this on," Nesselhuf said.

He pointed to a page from the governor's proposal showing K-12 per student allocation increases. The governor's plan shows that total ongoing student allocation will increase from $3,967.88 in fiscal year 2004 to $4,086.56 in fiscal year 2005.

"That's about a $60 increase, but if these are the same people that came up with the numbers on the first page, I'm not sure that the math is so great," Nesselhuf said. "I've always been on board with the plan that the superintendents and the school administrators and all school organizations come up with about changing the funding formula.

"I think it's very important that the Legislature take a stand and say, 'this is our priority, this is what we want to do,' and if nothing else, at least hold the governor accountable to these numbers," he said. "I don't understand how he came up with them. I think we need to hold his feet to the fire on this issue."

Nesselhuf, a member of the Senate Education Committee, urged board members and other school officials to travel to Pierre during the session.

"We would appreciate any help you could give us," he said. "Folks up there need to hear from school board members who can paint a picture of the bleak situation that we're in."

Rep. Donna Schafer, R-Vermillion, noted that $600,000 in discretionary monies may be earmarked to help fund a shortage in a state scholarship program.

Students scoring 24 or higher on their ACT tests qualify for the scholarships, she said, "and many more decided to attend our state schools. For the next budget year, we are funding for more (scholarships) and then after that, we should continue at an even keel."

The high number of qualifying students, she said, points to the success of the state's school districts.

"I think what we are requiring of our students and of our school systems is helping our students," Schafer said.

She said there is still a strong push to base education funding on school performance.

"Lots of people are really interested in that," Schafer said. "We do have to get more people to understand the plight of the school system. It's a hard sell, but it's getting better."

Schafer, who serves on the House education and commerce committees, told school board members that even though the school district is experiencing funding problems, they should avoid concluding that there is an anti-education sentiment in Pierre.

"The attitude towards education is a lot better than it used to be, and I hope we can improve that," she said. "I hope that I can make a difference � more so than I have been able to do in the past."

Many different interests are currently trying to revamp the state aid to education formula, Schafer said. "We need to do it as a cohesive group of people, so I think the very fact that the Associated School Boards is on board … (will help). Don't give up, we're still going to try to work on that."

"I have friends on school boards, and they tell me that the funds are just not there," newly elected District 17 Rep. Jamie Boomgarden (R-Chancellor) said. "I think it is very important that the education is there and the services are there for our kids, because the best way for people to advance themselves, the best way to help people in a lower income status, is to offer a good education.

Boomgarden said that he also has questions concerning the governor's budget proposal. "I hope to get them answered once I get to Pierre," he said.

He commended members of the Vermillion School Board for taking on a rather daunting task.

"It's a very personal decision to be in a small community, and I commend you all for that, because I know you all wake up every morning trying to find ways to the best for your communities," Boomgarden said.

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