Capitol Notebook: As education starves, it’s time to ask: Why?

By Bob Mercer

State Capitol Bureau

Jim Abbott is no fool.

He ran for statewide office three times and came closest in 2002 when he was the Democratic candidate for governor. He’s put his talents to the public’s benefit via another route, as the president of the University of South Dakota, a post he’s held since 1997.

On Thursday night, he made a statement to which attention should be paid.

“I think it’s clear,” he said in his annual State of the University speech, “that South Dakota does not support education.”

The story that followed by Braley Dodson in the Volante (the USD student newspaper) amplified the point.

“Our state has a tremendous aversion to taxes,” Abbott said. “We want excellence, but we don’t want to pay for it.”

Larry Rhoden is no fool, either.

He’s a state senator from the ranch country of Union Center. He’s running for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. He wants the Legislature and the governor to restore the K-12 aid that was cut two years ago during the recession.

So does Wade Pogany, executive director for the Associated School Boards of South Dakota. Pogany told a panel of legislators Tuesday that $23 million would be needed to bring the per-student allocation back up to the pre-cut level.

Administrators from Sioux Falls, Tea, Milbank, Custer, Estelline, Burke and Parkston told their stories to the panel. Details varied but the themes don’t take many words: Programs cut, salaries frozen, class sizes increased and fewer teachers seeking jobs.

Sen. Bill Van Gerpen, R-Tyndall, is no fool, either. He said the Legislature needs to follow the state law which guarantees that state aid per student increase annually by the rate of inflation but no more than 3 percent.

Two years in a row that didn’t happen. One year it was no increase, the next year was the 8-plus percent cut. That is why the school districts are $23 million behind.

To understand why schools are struggling, we need to look back to 20 years ago. The property tax revolt was at its modern peak in South Dakota.

An initiative on the 1994 election ballot sought to limit property taxes to 1 percent of a property’s assessed value – the equivalent of a cut, by half to two-thirds, depending on the area and the level of government.

The limitation lost, but barely. Yes voters numbered 152, 048 and no voters 155,435. Republican Bill Janklow won election for governor and led the Legislature to impose property-tax caps, limit budgets of local governments and establish our current school aid formula.

The formula uses a combination of local property taxes and state aid to assure every student receives an equal amount of funding – and more if the student attends a small-enrollment school district.

Janklow also convinced legislators to allow local governments and school districts to opt-out of the limits. An opt-out was subject to a local vote. The idea was voters would want their districts to excel and pay more.

That hasn’t happened. Opt-outs generally are loathed and often rejected.

Jim Abbott, unfortunately, is all too right.

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