We’re keeping our fingers crossed

I think we've begun to witness a classic bad cop/good cop routine play out here in South Dakota.The bad cop? South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, who has nothing to lose politically by proposing Tuesday that state aid to school districts be cut by 5 percent next year.The good job, naturally, is our next governor, Dennis Daugaard, who is preparing for his new leadership role. All of us in South Dakota had a hunch that the state would not be in the best fiscal shape when he's sworn in next month.It's been fairly clear that the state budget has been a struggle to balance for each of several of the last fiscal years as the nation has been rocked by a recession and the economy, from coast to coast, has been rather stagnant.Rounds' proposal makes it sound like South Dakota is really on the ropes. I mean, we agree, times are tough. But people in this state pride themselves on having their priorities in order. And education, we hope, will always be among the top of those priorities.So Rounds idea to cut state aid by 5 percent is, well, just a bit hard to swallow. Especially in a state where citizens have trouble keeping track of exactly how much money is sitting in a reserve fund here and there, waiting for a rainy day that evidently some state leaders say has not hit South Dakota yet.For years, the common battle cry concerning state aid to education was to increase it by 3 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever was less. Well, inflation hasn't been much of a factor in South Dakota for several years now.South Dakota school districts are financed with a combination of state aid and local property taxes. State law provides that state aid will increase each year by the rate of inflation, up to 3 percent. That would provide for an inflationary increase of 1.3 percent next year, but Rounds is proposing that the Legislature pass a law to reduce school aid.In March, the Legislature froze state aid to schools this year at last year's level. Rounds said his proposal would save $23.5 million by cutting base state aid from the current $4,804 per student to $4,564 next year.Rounds said he believes school districts can handle a cut in state aid because they have increased their reserve funds in recent years. With state aid may coming in at less than the inflation rate for several years now, local school boards have always faced a challenge on how to make ends meet. Not all of the stuff that schools must purchase to operate day to day has increased in price at a rate lower than inflation. Basic stuff. Like fuel. Electricity. Vehicles. And on and on. And last year, South Dakota asked students to more or less help balance the state budget by freezing all increases to state aid. That's why slashing state aid by 5 percent, as Rounds proposes, seems to be the perfect act of a man who no longer has to be accountable to South Dakotans. Lt. Governor Dennis Daugaard, the Republican nominee for governor, today announced his plan for building a stronger system of education in South Dakota. This is what Daugaard had to say about education when his gubernatorial campaign hit full stride last September. He listed three main goals:• Preparing students for the future, with a new emphasis on math and science and on career and technical education;• Respect for local control and local decision-making;• A commitment to funding education as funding is available."South Dakota's schools are already doing a good job," said Daugaard. "But we can always strive to do better. I will lead the charge to strengthen our science, technology, engineering and math education.  This will give our students a solid foundation to compete in a global economy."In addition, Daugaard also pledged to respect local decision-makers, promising to propose bills to repeal the 100-student minimum, cut regulation and lessen the restrictions on local school districts' budget reserves.When it comes to funding, Daugaard said he would commit "the first dollar and last dollar" of the state budget to education. He also emphasized the need for flexibility in the school funding formula, and committed to making sure the formula stays fair to all South Dakota schools."The future of South Dakota rests on our ability to be creative in our approach to education," said Daugaard. "When more funding is available, we will invest in our schools. I will work closely with educators, local leaders and parents to reconsider the status quo, find new approaches and take education in South Dakota to the next level."We would hope that during his eight years as lieutenant governor, Daugaard gained as much insight into the workings of the state's budget, especially concerning education funding, as all of the other state leaders in Pierre, including Rounds.We think it is likely that he already has a plan in mind for the state's budget when it comes to education funding and Medicare and all of the other fiscal challenges that South Dakota faces.We're willing to bet that Daugaard's proposals in the coming weeks won't be as severe as what we've just heard from Rounds.We're also crossing our fingers, hoping that this observation is correct.

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