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Sparse school funding may be extended

Isabel Dakotan of Isabel, South Dakota

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PIERRE, S.D. - Supplemental funding for sparse school districts, set to expire in June, could be extended if Senate Bill 88 is approved by the Legislature.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Cooper Garnos, R-Presho, was approved, 7-0, by the Senate Education Committee Jan. 29.

"This is one of the fundamental elements to our formula," Garnos said.

Sparsity funding was adopted by the 2006 Legislature to address the unique needs of school districts in sparsely populated areas, such as high bussing expenses. To qualify, school districts must be 400 square miles or greater in size, be 15 miles or more away from the nearest school, have a general fund balance equaling less than 30 percent of annual expenditures, have fewer than 500 students and fewer than 0.5 students per square mile.

The maximum amount of sparsity funding a school can qualify for is $165,000. 23 schools have received sparsity assistance in fiscal year 2009. The total price tag to continue the program in the 2010 fiscal year is projected at $2.3 million.

"If we continue to close our schools out west, we're going to eventually just have one large boarding school," Sen. Ryan Maher, D-Isabel, said.

Maher's legislative district takes up much of the northwest corner of South Dakota - an area with 11 sparsely populated school districts. Only 10 of the districts are receiving sparsity money, though, because the Buffalo school district is trying to save money to build a new school building, so its general fund balance exceeds 30 percent. Another school, Isabel, is operating for its final year because of the state's forced consolidation policy.

"You have, in some situations, students traveling 50 and 60 miles one way to come to school every morning," Maher said. "What happens in the instance of Faith is (students) board out for the week and they go home to their parents on the weekend."

Bison school district spans 1,332 square miles and serves 136 K-12 students. School superintendent Shawn Winthers testified to committee that sparsity funds make up 11.5 percent of his school's $1.4 million budget.

"This is a school that needs to be there," Winthers said. "(Sparsity funding) was good business the last three years. At what point did it stop being the right thing?"

Mcintosh superintendent Dick Schaffan and Faith superintendent Mel Dutton said sparsity funds have helped their schools stay open.

Jim Terwilliger of the S.D. Bureau of Finance and Management opposed the bill.

"We all know what the budget situation is," Terwilliger said.

He said schools got along before sparsity funding existed, and they will be able get along without it again.

Garnos said many of the schools affected by sparsity are meeting and exceeding academic standards, which is part of the reason sparsity funding should be continued.

"If you look at these small school districts, you will see that they stack up better than anyone in the state in terms of attendance, graduation rates, ACT (scores)," Garnos said. "They're flat-out getting the job done."

The measure now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

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Original Publication Date: February 5, 2009

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