Between the Lines — Forces beyond local control

By David Lias

We’re all familiar with humorous saying, and I’m paraphrasing here, “No person’s life, liberty and property is safe as long as the legislature is in session.”

The Vermillion School Board discovered at its Jan. 28 meeting that there could be a bit of truth to that axiom. And it’s not really a laughing matter.

While discussing various bits of education-related legislation that’s seeing action in Pierre during this legislative session, Superintendent Mark Froke brought up Senate Bill 15.

The bill, introduced at the request of the state Department of Education, is described, in its official title, as “An act to revise certain provisions regarding state aid to special education.”

So far, so good.

“This changes up the amount per thousand (valuation of real property) that can be taxed for special education. Currently, we have a minimum and a maximum, and the minimum is $1.20 per thousand, and the maximum is $1.40 per thousand,” Froke told the school board. “The state is proposing moving that to $1.33 minimum, and $1.55 maximum.

“Just off the cuff, I thought, ‘good, that will provide some additional support for special education.’ We’re always struggling with that,” he said.

Business Manager Sheila Beermann “ran the numbers,” so to speak, to see what kind of financial impact – hopefully a positive one – this legislation may have on our school district’s special education programs.

Turns out it’s not exactly a winning formula.

“When I did the worksheet for our special education, if the school would remain at $1.40 (the current maximum) all it would do is reduce the dollars coming into the district,” Beermann said. “We’d have to move our levy to $1.53 (per thousand) in order to maintain the same income into the district, but it still would be shuffled from the state to the taxpayer – that extra 13 cents per thousand.

“So it does shift the burden,” she said. “It also makes us increase our levy just to maintain our dollars.”

“The governor is very interested in seeing this passed, and no one could figure out why,” Froke told the school board. Beermann’s calculations show that if this bill is approved in its present form, and the Vermillion district makes no changes to the present levy – keeping it at $1.40 – there will be a noticeable impact.

“We take a $70,000 hit,” Froke said, “and taking it to a $1.53 per thousand – we break even. What’s happening is the burden is being shifted from the state to the local taxpayer.”

It’s easy to vent, to have steam coming from your ears, when you get the card from the county each year that breaks down just how much property tax you pay. There is no doubt some people who conclude that local governing entities, such as our school board, need to work harder at pinching pennies. It is, after all, “our” money.

School boards, from Vermillion to Lemmon and all points in-between in South Dakota, face huge challenges year after year when it comes to budgeting. At the last meeting of the Vermillion board, members dealt with the fact that they will soon have to approve the spending of a significant amount of capital outlay funds on needed maintenance/replacement of a portion of the high school’s roof.

Board members and school administrators knew this day was coming, however. They planned ahead, and made sure the district’s capital outlay fund was adequately stocked with revenue to meet such needs.

Senate Bill 15, however, is something that’s as out of the school board’s control as our district’s student enrollment. The enrollment, by the way, is down from last year, meaning significantly less revenue will be available when it comes time to plan for next year’s budget.

SB15 was introduced Jan. 9, and referred to the Senate Education Committee. On Jan. 24, it was bumped to the Senate Appropriations Committee. That committee is scheduled to take action on it today. One can imagine that it may be approved by that committee and move on to the state Senate. It may be altered in some way during this process; perhaps some wording will be stricken or an amendment may be added.

It’s hard to say exactly what will happen. It may sail right to the governor’s desk without fanfare. He will sign it, and it will become law. Without the Jane and Joe Does of our state – the South Dakota’s taxpayers – knowing that it may bump up their property taxes a bit.

We realize it is difficult to describe 13 cents per $1,000 as a burdensome increase. We are a state, however, whose voters strongly turned away a initiated measure last November that would have increased sales taxes to, in part, provide some extra revenue for education.

One can’t help but wonder if that tax failed to gain public support because too many citizens were wary of how the Legislature would react if it passed. I heard more than one concerned observer note that they believed state lawmakers would simply pull back state revenues normally earmarked for education so that, while paying higher taxes, we wouldn’t really gain what was intended.

Yes, there are forces at work beyond the control of our local school district. We have good reason to be wary of the state Legislature.

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