By David Lias
University of South Dakota President James Abbott’s words came to mind as members of the Finance Committee of the Vermillion School Board quietly talked at the board’s Monday meeting about what they have been working on lately.
“I think it’s clear,” Abbott said last September during his State of the University speech, “that South Dakota does not support education.
“Our state has a tremendous aversion to taxes,” Abbott said. “We want excellence, but we don’t want to pay for it.”
Those words may seem a bit harsh, especially following Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s State of the State address earlier this month, in which he called for a 3 percent increase in funding for K-12 education.
I’m sure members of the Vermillion School Board see a proposed 3 percent increase as better news than what the governor announced shortly after taking office – a 10 percent across the board cut to the state’s general fund.
The state Legislature managed, during its 2011 session, to find some one-time money to lessen the blow a bit to schools so that education funding was cut about 8.6 percent instead of 10 percent. South Dakota schools received a total of $52 million in cuts to state education funding.
So, even with a proposed 3 percent increase, the Vermillion School Board isn’t exactly celebrating right now.
“The financial picture for the Vermillion School District – I’ll be blunt – is bleak,” said Dave Stammer, Vermillion School Board member who serves on the board’s Finance Committee. “It doesn’t really get a whole lot better with 3 percent, and the reason why is student population.”
The Vermillion School District’s enrollment has been declining in recent years. Fewer students mean fewer dollars from Pierre.
According to the South Dakota Department of Education, the fall 2010 enrollment of the Vermillion School District was 1,258. By the fall of 2011, fall enrollment dipped to 1,235.
The fall 2012 enrollment of our school district tumbled to 1,202. This school year, fall student numbers ticked upward a bit, to 1,213.
The state’s per-student formula, set in place in 1997, established that no matter where a student attended class, his or her school received the same amount of money per child. In property-tax-rich school districts, the bulk of that money comes from local property taxes; in poor districts, most of the money comes from the state.
The formula has been adjusted slightly to send more money to small and sparsely populated schools and those with students learning English as a second language.
The per-student allocation of funds to each school district was $4,805 for the 2009-10 school year. Gov. Rounds froze that amount during his last year in office, so, again, in 2010-11, schools received $4,805 per student.
In the 2011-12 school year, school funding took an 8.6 percent hit, and the per-student allocation was cut to $4,390. The state gave school funding a tepid 2.3 percent increase for the 2012-13 school year, raising the allocation to $4,491. School funding received a 3 percent raise for the 2013-14 school year, setting the allocation at $4,626 per student.
Let’s do some quick math: The Vermillion School District, based on enrollment and per-student allocation figures, received $6,044,690 for the 2010-11 school year. For 2011-12 (the time of the 8.6 percent education funding cut), it received $5,421,650 in state aid. For the 2012-13 school year, Pierre sent the Vermillion district $5,398,182, and for 2013-14, the district is scheduled to receive $5,611,338.
If all goes as the governor proposes, the per-student allocation for 2014-15, thanks to a 3 percent increase, will be $4,765 per student. If enrollment stays exactly the same from now until next fall (which likely won’t happen), the Vermillion School District would receive $5,779,945.
Even with the governor’s added 3 percent, our school district next year, under this scenario, would receive significantly less state aid – more than a quarter million dollars less – than in 2010-11.
Can you think of any expenses related to running a district that educates approximately 1,200 young people in two elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school that have decreased significantly over the past four years?
Fortunately, patrons of the Vermillion School District have recognized the funding challenges our local schools and students face with the erratic funding that comes from Pierre. The district in is the midst of a second opt-out of a property tax freeze that that has softened the financial blows from Pierre just a bit.
The opt-out demonstrates that there are pockets, here and there, in our state, where President Abbott’s observations aren’t completely accurate. Yes, we South Dakotans are tax averse. We want excellence, but we don’t want to pay for it.
And while one would like to think that perhaps state leaders are realizing that it is time to invest more in education, the 3 percent increase proposed by the governor is not the product of a vast philosophical change in school and student investment in Pierre.
The governor found some one-time money, and decided, this year, to spend it on schools.
What may happen as the 2015 Legislature convenes a year from now is a mystery. School funding might stay the same. It very well could be cut. Who knows?
One thing is for certain. If you are a member of the Finance Committee of the Vermillion School Board, it’s difficult to get excited about the proposed 3 percent increase for 2014-15.