Schools want juvenile reform

Jason Ferguson
The question was whether those gathered in the room would like to see the return of a STAR Academy-like facility return to South Dakota.
The answer was an overwhelming yes.
Those gathered were school administrators and school board members from the Custer and Hill City shool districts, as well as from Fall River County schools. The question was asked by South Dakota’s District 30 legislators—Reps. Tim Goodwin and Julie Frye-Mueller and Sen. Lance Russell—who met with the administrators and board staff at Custer Elementary School the evening of Dec. 17.
The meeting covered a large swath of topics that related to education, but the topics of mental health and juvenile justice resources brought about passionate pleas for help from those in attendance, particularly administrative staff members.
Behavioral problems, whether it is caused by substance abuse, a mental health issue, a poor home life, etc., can take up a great deal of administrators’ time and cause disruption to other students. Custer Jr./Sr. High School principal Orion Thompson said he recently spent an entire day with one student “trying to keep them from doing something stupid.”
“Where is it we can start helping school districts in that capacity?” he asked, saying there are students who have “no functionality” after school lets out for the day.
Much of the problem centered around former Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s juvenile justice reform package, which sounded a death knell for the former State Treatment and Rehabilitation (STAR) Academy, and returned children who would likely be in the juvenile justice system to their hometowns for the schools and law enforcement there to deal with.
Some on hand said the ramifications of the closing of STAR Academy were immediate and devastating.
Thompson asked the representatives if there was going to be any push for juvenile justice reform, with the legislators saying there would be an introduction of a bill to “try to make it an issue.” Legislation is also being crafted that would strip Gov. Kristi Noem of the ability to sell the former STAR Academy in hopes it could return to its former use as a juvenile detention facility.
Thompson said junior high and high school principals across the state are in agreement the situation is dire, but Russell said if that’s the case, those organizations are not communicating that position to legislators.
Russell said it’s important that statistics and hard facts are used to advocate for juvenile justice reform. Frye-Mueller encouraged administrators and school board members to show up in Pierre during the legislative session and testify to the need for change rather than relying on paid lobbyists to testify.
School funding was the first issue discussed, and Noem has proposed a $4.94 billion state budget for the 2021 fiscal year, which begins July 1 next year. Her proposed budget provides a starting point for the legislature’s budget discussions, with adoption of the 2021 budget occurring during the legislation session.
Noem’s budget calls for additional funding tied to school enrollment increases and $14 million more for special education. However, it does not call for the constitutionally mandated inflation increases for education, which is 3 percent or the Consumer Price Index, whichever is less.
Russell said he would not vote for a budget that does not include the statutory minimum increase to education.
“We’re going to have a very difficult year,” he said. “I think that’s readily apparent to anyone.”
Russell said the only way to get the leverage needed to get the 3 percent increase in education is to be stern about money spent on other programs he deemed frivolous. The money being spent on the state’s meth campaign and pheasant habitat is money that could be diverted to education, he said, saying it comes down to priorities.
Custer School District Board of Education member Jeff Prior said parents have called him, angry that the statutory requirement for education funding increases are being ignored.
Goodwin said the budget “is the legislators,” not (Noem’s), while adding that the last minute passage of the budget is intentional so people will cave “because they want to go home.”
Russell said there are too few legislators who are unwilling to buck the governor.
“Technically, it’s our budget,” he said. “Practically, it’s the governor’s.”
“If we have people in our ranks who fold, they should be called out on it,” Goodwin said.
All three District 30 representatives voted against the budget a year ago, and pledged to those in attendance they would do so again if it did not include the required education increase.
Last year the Hill City School District—which receives no state aid because of the state funding formula, which is driven by how much property taxes an area pays and was retooled to focus less on enrollment numbers and more on student/teacher ratios—was forced to cut $700,000 from its budget, while Hot Springs made $800,000 in cuts.
School districts’ capital outlay funding was also addressed at the meeting, particularly a law that states the amount of money that can be generated by the capital outlay levy will be capped at $2,800 per student next year, which will hurt Custer and Hill City, among other smaller districts.
Russell said years ago when the administration pushed through 10 percent budget cuts to education, part of the rationale for doing so was the belief by some that school districts were hoarding money and were to blame for higher property taxes because their capital outlay funds were out of control.
“I can almost guarantee you there is going to be no change in capital outlay,” Russell said. “There are some fights worth fighting and some that aren’t. They’ve totally made capital outlay the boogeyman for property taxes.”
Hill City School District Board of Education member Dennis Krull said he believes the cap takes away local control, and said Hill City stands to lose $269,000 because of the cap.
“Why do people in Pierre get to tell us how much capital outlay should be?” Krull asked. “I’m going to really fight for this. I don’t know how I’m going to do it.”
Krull said nearly 80 school districts in the state will lose capital outlay money if the cap remains, and that districts should be allowed to have a higher capital outlay mil if it chooses and those within the district do not fight it.
“You can go down that road and try it, but there are people who will guard it with their lives,” Russell said.
Other issues discussed were:
• Preschool, with audience members asking if there was a way to address pre-kindergarten education, with Goodwin saying there was no appetite for it last year, and that he doubted much momentum could be gained for it this year.
• Special education, as the amount of students in special education continues to grow with the same amount or less money to spend on those students. It is estimated 13 percent of the student population in the state is now special education. Russell asked those in attendance to work up numbers as to how much money it would cost to fully fund special education.
• Vouchers and charter schools, with information handed out before the meeting calling vouchers “nothing more than another attack on public schools.”
“Any legislation that allows additional money to be taken from public schools or to expand the voucher program is a detriment to 95 percent of the students in the state,” the material read.
Russell said he is open to the idea of charter schools, especially in places such as Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Russell said competition is a good thing.
“You probably don’t like that, but that ups everybody’s game when there is competition,” he said.
Thompson said charter schools can take the “cream off the top” of public schools and see them end up at private schools, while contributing to instability of the public schools.
Russell said if a school perpetually fails in academics, is rife with violence, suicide and “structurally inept,” he would not want to see children in the school put in a situation where they have no option but stay in that school.
More Daugaard reform was brought up at the end of the meeting, specifically the half-cent increase in the state sales tax, bringing $67 million to South Dakota schools with a target goal of making the average salary for teachers $48,500.
Prior said schools should not have to “come here begging for money that was set aside.”
Russell said it’s frustrating to him when someone who says they are leading shows their word cannot be trusted, referencing again Noem’s failure to propose an increase in education funds. Russell said the education funding overhaul has benefitted only large school districts.
“We’ve got a CEO telling us our word is no good,” he said. “It infuriates me because it embarrasses me.”

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