A difference of philosophy

A difference of philosophy
There no doubt are many issues that both Republican and Democratic lawmakers agree on when they gather in Pierre every January.

Funding for education, it appears, is an item that causes the two parties to agree to disagree.

Unlike other years, when District 17 legislators address their stand on a variety of topics to constituents, Saturday's Cracker Barrel meeting in Vermillion had one prevailing theme: education funding.

District 17 Ben Nesselhuf believes it's time for the state to do something meaningful to provide more funding for the state's school districts.

So do members of Vermillion's School Board and the Vermillion PTA, two groups who were strongly represented in the audience.

"We have a lot of parents here today," said Judy Zwolak of the Vermillion PTA. "You know the only reason we haven't had cuts recently in the school district is because we passed an opt-out last year. It took a lot of work, it took a lot of effort, it wasn't fun and a lot of districts can't do this."

For that reason, Nesselhuf said, he decided to be prime sponsor of SB 120. The legislation would provide extra funds for education by asking the state to live by the same strict budget guidelines that school districts have had to follow in the last decade.

His attempt to increase school funding was unsuccessful. Nesselhuf took time Saturday, however, to explain why he made the effort.

A study recently completed by the Education Alliance, he said, estimates that in fiscal year 2007, South Dakota schools will receive approximately $102 million less than they need.

"This bill would have funded education at $100 million beyond what we are doing. The way that we are doing this is not with a tax increase but rather to put the same restraints on government spending that we've put on schools for the last 10 years."

"For the last 10 years, we've told the schools we're going to give you either a 3 percent increase or the rate of inflation, whichever is lowest. That's part of the reason we've seen schools fall farther and farther behind," Nesselhuf said.

Extra funding wouldn't come from new taxes. It would be taken from the property tax reduction fund, which is funded by video lottery, Nesselhuf said.

"There's $80 million sitting in there, and it grows every year. In my opinion, this fund isn't being used the way it was intended to," he said.

The legislation sponsored by Nesselhuf would take $20 million from this fund and give them to school districts, above and beyond what they receive from the state in the school aid formula. This $20 million payout would continue annually for a total of five years.

"As we restrain government spending, every year we would need to take less and less from this fund to meet our goal," Nesselhuf said. "In fact, if we left the constraints on government spending in place for seven years, we could actually have that fund back up to about $60 million.

"If we decide that fund is that important to build back up, we could live on the same diet that we've been feeding the schools, and get that money back in there," he said.

The legislation failed in the Senate Education Committee, Nesselhuf said, but attempts will be made to breathe new life into it so that, eventually, every legislator will have a chance to vote on it.

"I was there when you presented, and I thought you did a super job," Vermillion Superintendent Mark Froke told Nesselhuf.

Froke added that a counter-proposal offered in the House of Representatives by Boomgarden may provide some extra education funding.

"There's no disagreement that there is a need for extra money," Boomgarden said. "But there are some concerns with SB 120, which caused people to be uncertain."

One of those concerns is that this legislation would deplete other fund balances, he said. "It takes all of the property tax reduction funds, it takes the money from the railroad trust fund, and it all goes into the alliance fund."

A final analysis of the total amount of funding shows that $133 million would be needed annually.

"You divide that out by 170 school districts, and that's $750,000 per school district," Boomgarden said.

If the property tax reduction fund is depleted, he said, and that money isn't available to supplement lower property tax levies, South Dakotans could eventually be looking at 30 percent increases in real estate taxes in five or six years.

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