‘You are destroying public education’

'You are destroying public education' "? the people who are balancing the budget in the state of South Dakota are the public schools and the students ?"Tom Craig, School board president by David Lias Members of the Vermillion School Board didn't mince words as they discussed school funding with District 17 legislators Monday night.

"Nick and Mark and I have been on the board for close to nine years, and Pierre and the people who have represented us have told us the attitude towards education is continuing to improve, and we can expect things to get better," School Board President Tom Craig said.

Local school board members' patience is wearing thin, however, as they continue to wait for those "better days," he said.

School districts in recent years have been ordered to spend down their fund reserves, while receiving only about a 2 percent annual revenue increase from the Legislature.

"The state, however, has continued to take its normal increases, and the total budget for the state has increased," he said. "In the Vermillion School District specifically, we have reduced our budget by 15 percent, and we're looking at cutting an additional 6 percent this year. We made a 20 percent cut in our general fund, while the state continues to spend more money."

The state is finding many ways to hurt school districts financially, Craig said. He noted that the Legislature has enacted mandates but failed to fund them. Graduation requirements have been expanded, and schools have had to increase pension funds without help from Pierre.

"Gov. Rounds would like to keep more people in the state of South Dakota, because our people graduate and they go to other states," Craig said. "He wants to attract high tech businesses and bring them into South Dakota, and yet you are eliminating the foundation for that, because you are destroying public education in this state.

"It's getting to the point where it is extremely irritating," he said. "It's no longer just frustrating. It seems like, to me, that the importance in our future is in education; we're the ones who have paid the bill for the last 10 years and somebody up there (in Pierre) needs to make some changes."

Dr. Michael Granaas, school board member, said he appreciates the pro-education stance that local legislators have traditionally taken.

He warned lawmakers, however, of the dire consequences that await if changes in education funding don't occur.

"As a university professor, I work with a lot of young people from all over this state, and something has changed in the last 15 or so years," Granaas said. "When I came here, a lot of kids planned to leave the state because there were no job opportunities. They are still doing that. But more importantly, in the last two or three years, more and more kids I talk to are planning to leave the state because they are not wanted here.

"The message from Pierre is loud and clear," he said. "We're not funding education, we're cutting you back, we're punishing you for being children. I guess if you want to have a 400,000 square mile retirement community, that will be fine, but I don't know who is going to pay all the bills."

"Certainly I would hope that you would take our message (to Pierre)," Craig said. "Somebody needs to wake up and listen."

"We need to hear it and take it back and do as much as we possibility can," Schafer said. "You're not hurting my feelings with what you're saying. I agree with you."

"There can't be anyone in Pierre who doesn't live in a district or next to a district that has had to go through an opt-out," Nick Merrigan, school board member, said. "I don't think that it is fair to the taxpayers of any district to have to support an opt-out when we aren't being properly funded."

He told Rep. Schafer that the Vermillion School District needs the same type of per student allocation of state aid that smaller school districts receive.

"We're $500 per kid behind," Merrigan said. "We've lost 6 percent of our enrollment since the three of us (he, Craig and Bottolfson) have been on the board, yet we've had to cut 20 percent of our budget, and we spent down a $2.7 million fund balance, because every year we get less from Pierre.

"Our cost won't be anywhere close to 2 percent this year," he added, "between fuel and health insurance and pay raises � 2 percent doesn't do anything.

Craig said it is ironic that the state demands accountability from public schools, with a very positive response, judging from South Dakota's 10th place

ranking nationwide in student achievement.

"Where do our teachers rank in pay? Dead last," he said. "Absolutely last in the entire country, and we're at the bottom for the amount of money we pay per child for education. And then they want accountability � it looks to me that the state is getting a huge return for its investment in education."

Craig said state lawmakers and other officials apparently don't understand the long-range impacts that further budget cuts will have.

"You're not going to see the full impact for maybe five to 10 years," he said, "and then it's going to be very difficult to reverse that trend."

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