By David Lias
The people who lobby for school funding in South Dakota find themselves in an unusual, and somewhat pleasant situation.
Some progress may actually be made in increasing the amount of state funding public school districts across the state receive.
Wade Pognay, executive director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota (ASBSD), told the Vermillion School Board Monday that funding was a major concern when the organization’s delegates held meetings earlier this year.
“We just finished our delegate assembly work. We had board members from all over the state come in and we debated all kinds of issues. The reason for that is when I go to Pierre, to the Capitol, and lobby for board members, I need to really understand where boards are across our state and the positions that they take,” Pognay said. “We debated everything from finances to pledge of allegiance to you name it, and we really had a terrific discussion. I feel very, very good about where our positions are, and what the boards are asking to be considered.”
Gov. Dennis Daugaard, in his Dec. 3 budget address, has given educators reason to be hopeful that some of their funding goals may be met.
“I will spend the entire session working with legislators on the funding question, and we’re delighted the Gov. Daugaard raised the expectation from 1.6 percent to 3 percent, and how he went about doing that is interesting,” Pognay said. “He obviously had a lot of one-time money through unclaimed property, and what he did was he dedicated that one-time money to paying down a lot of the state debt and some bonds, so now he’s going to use the money that normally would have been used to pay the bonds … it will be an ongoing revenue source to give to schools and Medicaid providers and state employees. I applaud him for that.”
Daugaard has proposed a $4.3 billion state budget that would use a windfall in unclaimed property payments to give bigger-than-expected spending increases for schools, health care for poor people and pay raises for state employees.
Daugaard warned earlier that lackluster tax receipts would hold increases to around 1.6 percent, the minimum bump for inflation that state law requires for school aid. But he told state lawmakers on Dec. 3 that an unexpected $70 million in unclaimed property receipts – money the state gets from bank accounts and other property whose owners cannot be found – will allow 3 percent increases in school aid, payments to health care providers in the Medicaid program and other key programs.
The Republican governor also proposed a 3 percent raise for state employees and a 3 percent hike in spending on South Dakota’s four technical institutes.
“We’re still working toward a goal that we asked him for and the Legislature for, and that’s to get you folks back to a per student allocation of $4, 805,” Pognay said.
That amount – $4,805 – represents the amount of state aid per student to bring public school districts back to the funding levels before Daugaard made drastic cuts to the state budget early in his first term. Public school funding was decreased 8.6 percent.
“We think it’s important now, after these three years, that we restore that, to get back to that, if not exceed that,” he said. “My board and the delegates clearly said we need to try to persuade our legislators to achieve that level. I’m glad the governor has moved us in that direction.
Pognay said to achieve the $4,805 per student funding level, the Legislature would need to increase funding eight-tenths of one percent above what the governor is proposing.
He also discussed some of the conclusions reached following participation by superintendents and school board members in legislators’ summer study committee meetings earlier this year.
Pognay noted that each school district in the state has unique needs, “but we heard common, common issues about funding and revenue sources. I think teacher salaries and operational kinds of things were very difficult for schools, and the committee really listened to that.”
He said he was delighted that the committee made a commitment to the “$4,805 per student funding level. “They will bring a bill that will launch that discussion,” he said.
Daugaard’s overall budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 would be nearly 3 percent smaller than this year, down by about $124 million. Spending would include nearly $1.4 billion from general state taxes, about $1.7 billion from federal funds and nearly $1.2 billion from other state funds.
The Legislature will determine the final budget in the session that opens Jan. 14.
State law requires that aid to school districts increase each year by the level of inflation, up to 3 percent. That would require an increase of 1.6 percent in school aid next year. In some years, the Legislature has given schools extra money, but there was no increase in 2010 and aid was cut in 2011, when the sluggish economy limited tax collections.
Pognay said he also hears a consistent message from school board members, due mainly to the funding freezes and cuts that have occurred in recent years. The members all say they find it nearly impossible to plan for the future with the level of uncertainty that exists in school funding.
“There will be a bill that will look at the funding formula which sets the per student allocation at 3 percent or inflation, whichever is less. This bill will add on a clause that will say at a minimum of 2 percent,” Pognay said. “You might think 2 percent isn’t a lot, but it really will be another step toward something more consistent than this fluctuation. It could be above 2 percent, and we’d have to negotiate that, but I think it’s a step in the right direction. It says that the Legislature understands that boards have trouble planning.”