An Open Letter to the Joint Committee on Appropriations:
I appreciate the efforts that the Legislature made in order to provide increased funding for schools in the 2016 session. In South Dakota, any increase in taxation is not taken lightly, and our public insists that tax money be used appropriately. In the Garretson School District, we have taken very seriously the responsibility to be good stewards of the tax money entrusted to us for the education of our students. We appreciated being able to share our District’s story with the School Finance Accountability Board (SFAB). However, we left the meeting frustrated by what appeared to be an irrational reliance on projections in favor of real student enrollment numbers for the purpose of accountability.
As we approached the SFAB, we relied on the Administrative Rules of South Dakota (24:44:01:06) that spell out the factors that the Board was required to consider when recommending a waiver of accountability rules. As we presented our case, board members informed us that the committee had set precedent that morning, and that they would not consider the financial impact of retirement in the District or the financial impact of declining enrollment as appropriate justification for a waiver of the accountability rules. These two factors had a financial impact in our district of $35,393 and $48,203 respectively. We plotted our course thoughtfully, with knowledge that the ARSD spelled out these specifically as factors that would be considered for a waiver. How were we to know that in the eleventh hour, these two factors would be removed from consideration?
Over the past five years, we have depleted our General Fund reserves by spending more money than we would receive in revenue. Our General Fund balance ended the year at approximately 13.5% of expenditures. We knew we could not sustain the trend of deficit spending, so we asked our community to opt out of the property tax limitations in order to preserve our programs. We have done the things at the local level that many in leadership positions in Pierre have asked us to do. When presented with the funding package of 2016, our district negotiated with our teaching staff in good faith, knowing that we would fall short of DOE projections for enrollment, and therefore, receive less in new funding than the projections indicated. When opportunities to bring our expenditures in line with expected revenues presented themselves, we took advantage of them. We had two experienced staff members retire, to be replaced with first year teachers. We also took advantage of an opportunity to develop a shared services grant by sharing a full-time Spanish teacher with the Baltic School District. We made these decisions in a conservative, thoughtful manner, based on the factors clearly laid out in the ARSD for consideration of a waiver of the accountabilities.
We urge you to reconsider the recommendation from the SFAB. We ask you to recognize the difficulty of being a school in which enrollment declined, and therefore, received less “new” revenue from the funding package of 2016. As South Dakotans, we believe in using “common sense.” We believe very strongly that the accountabilities should be based on the common sense of real, accurate numbers (for both enrollment and revenue) rather than the fiction of projections. We ask that you give full credibility and consideration to factors that are delineated in the ARSD (24:44:01:06), and ask that you grant our request for a waiver to the accountability rules. Thank you for your consideration.