State task force debates ed funding

State task force debates ed funding By Susan Smith South Dakota's state aid funding formula is supposed to provide equal money for each student.

A committee created by the 2005 Legislature to determine if that's true, held its first meeting Sept. 6-7 in Pierre and will meet again in November.

The funding formula is designed so that local property tax dollars figure first into the dollar amount each district needs with state money topping off the glass, said Stacy Krusemark of the Department of Education. Some districts receive the majority of their money from the state with others raising so much in taxes, also called local effort, that they need no state aid money.

But education lobbyists annually allege that the formula is under funded. The 2005 Legislature created the State Aid Study Task Force to determine if the funding formula really does work for schools.

Discussion during the task force's first meeting ranged from consolidation to reallocating extra money given to schools with fewer than 600 students.

Without that small school factor it is unlikely the current formula would have received legislative approval in 1995, said Jan Nicolay, a former lawmaker and current member of the state Board of Education. But she questioned what justified the formula now.

"We need to have equal access to the dollars," she said.

During small group discussion a majority of members said schools shouldn't receive the small school factor unless they were sparse districts � basically large geographically, but with few students per square mile.

Sen. Eric Bogue, R-Faith, has championed the cause of those sparse districts during the last two legislative sessions. His children currently attend school in seven doublewide trailers because the Faith school building was condemned. The tax base does not exist to rebuild the school.

The smaller class sizes and increased transportation costs make it more expensive to educate students. Without a sparsity factor, families will likely not be able to continue living in those areas, Bogue said.

"Do we want to close off vast areas of South Dakota to families with children," he asked. "That in a nutshell is why we need the sparsity factor."

But so far lawmakers have yet to pin down exactly what constitutes a sparse district. Some parts of eastern South Dakota would count as sparse. And some of those children spend nearly as much time on the bus as children in the western part of the state.

"It's more than just extra money," Rep. Phyllis Heineman, R-Sioux Falls, said. "We may have to think out of the box a little when we say what our delivery model looks like."

Sparse school districts do get first consideration when signing up for classes offered on the Digital Dakota Network. Using those alternative types of classes may be one way to deal with sparsity, Heineman said.

Lawmakers typically argue over districts that are small by necessity and those that are small by choice. The small by choice schools struggle with declining enrollment. Legislators have approved incentives for small schools to consolidate. For three years the new school district can receive a percentage of the two former districts' state aid money, Krusemark said. And they get to retain their small school factor for the first four years following consolidation but are slowly weaned off of it for the last four years.

Those incentives are not driving consolidation, task force members said.

Hank Kosters of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota said he never tries to sell the financial incentives

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when he talks to schools about consolidation.

"The focus should be on a better educational program," he said.

Jason Dilges, who heads the state Bureau of Finance and Management, argued that more money doesn't necessarily mean a better education.

"I think that's a misconception," he said.

Education Secretary Rick Melmer agreed.

"I don't think there is any correlation between the money spent per student and student achievement," he said.

There are small schools across the state with good student test scores. And a wide range exists between the amounts of money individual school districts spend per student.

Consolidation is a hard sell, but some struggling school districts are more willing to talk consolidation, Melmer said.

"I think that's where the state could take some leadership possibly," said Brad Wheeler of Lemmon. "In my mind you're gong to have a better education if you consolidate."

"Everybody's got an idea of who should close and it's rarely the district you're in," Melmer said. "I would think it's pretty clear that you could be more efficient but is the political will there?"

High school achievement is what concerns his department.

"We want the best education program possible for the young people in the state," he said. "Can schools under 200 provide a quality high school program for kids?"

The task force must provide a preliminary report to the Legislature by Dec. 1. They are required to submit a final report by Dec. 1, 2006.

Gov. Mike Rounds appointed the task force from the general public, which includes school board members, business managers, school superintendents, state officials and business leaders. The Executive Board of the Legislature chose the lawmakers who serve on the task force.

No teachers serve on the task force and that's a concern to Donna DeKraai of the South Dakota Education Association.

"That is the missing link," she said. "I think it would be good to have the teachers' perspective."

She's also concerned that the task force is dealing with the same amount of money that has been available to fund education.

"Melmer made it clear that they're dealing with the same money," DeKraai said. "That is a concern to us. We also understand that's what the Legislature told them to do."

But she was encouraged by the openness of the initial discussion.

"I think they all see a need to change some things," she said. "I think it's too early to predict what direction they're going to go."

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