Actually, Tuesday was not a good day for Yankton.
To be sure, it was the day voters in the Yankton School District approved a four-year, $1.85 million opt-out from the property tax freeze that will allow the district to avoid some painful budgetary cuts. That’s good news for education in this community.
But make no mistake: Whenever a school district is forced to go to its constituency for more money just to make ends meet because state aid isn’t cutting it — and has become agonizingly unpredictable and unreliable — it’s not a good day. Not for the school. Not for the students. Not for the taxpayers.
A lot of schools in this state haven’t had good days the last couple decades. A South Dakota News Watch story from 2018 reported that 44% of the state’s 149 school districts were operating under an opt-out at that time. The number has grown since then.
An opt-out is more of a Band-Aid than a genuine, systemic fix. And really, it isn’t always a one-time remedy: Recently, the Vermillion school board was compelled to renew a five-year, $800,000 opt-out that was originally passed in 2015.
But, as YSD Superintendent Dr. Wayne Kindle pointed out after this week’s vote, the ballot box is just one front in this war.
Another battleground is in Pierre, where the funding of education does not enjoy the highest of priorities.
State law says that aid for schools must increase annually by 3% or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. But sometimes, this seems like a variation of the old “Far Side” cartoon about what a dog actually hears; in this case, lawmakers occasionally seem to understand this law as “blah blah blah blah blah less” and act accordingly. Schools were hit with a deep 8% cut several years ago in the wake of the Great Recession, and that money has never been replaced. In some legislative sessions, funding has been an iffy proposition. In her budget address last December, Gov. Kristi Noem proposed a 0% increase for schools due to soft revenues and natural disasters — and in spite of what state law says. A slightly brighter revenue picture has some lawmakers hoping to do something for education yet this session, but hope is a tough thing for any school district to build a budget upon.
(I have a pessimistic theory on this: A majority of taxpayers in our state don’t have kids directly involved in the school systems anymore, so lawmakers subsequently may find it easier to fiddle with education funding because there will likely be less retribution. Maybe that’s an unfair hypothesis and I would love to be proven wrong.)
One small avenue of temporary help could come in a legislative effort to dip into a $625 million education trust fund set up by the state. Under House Bill 1230, which was proposed by District 18 Rep. Ryan Cwach, $10 million would be drawn from the fund one time to help school districts. The money used would come from the interest the fund collects and would not touch the principal.
But it was conceded at last week’s cracker barrel that this bill faces an uphill fight. Apparently, no one likes to touch rainy-day funds, even when it’s flooding (figuratively and literally).
“Preserving a fund just to preserve a fund doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” said District 18 Sen. Craig Kennedy, who is a sponsor of the bill. “It represents growing just to grow while not meeting obligations.”
Legislators have to make difficult decisions regarding the budget, and I don’t envy them in the least. But the fact that the state’s teacher pay ranked last in the country for decades (and has now crept up, at least momentarily, to 47th thanks to a half-cent tax passed in 2016) and that nearly half of the state’s school districts have needed opt-outs to adequately fulfill their educational missions might suggest that the priorities in Pierre aren’t always serving the present or the future very well.
Yankton approved a short-term solution Tuesday that will soothe some of these problems for a time. The school district ran a well-organized campaign and laid out its case repeatedly to anyone who would listen. It made the sale by about a 53%-47% margin, which was fortunate because, if voters had rejected a school opt-out for a third time — this time, with no real organized opposition to throw up roadblocks — it would have been humiliating and even damaging for the community.
Nevertheless, the fact that such an effort was needed at all stands as a frustrating statement on the unreliable state of education funding in South Dakota. That’s why growing the revenue base — for the state and for each community — is so vital. Education spending is an investment in everyone’s future, whether you have kids in school or not. And that’s why days like Tuesday indicate that a lot more needs to be done at all levels to avoid more days like Tuesday.
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