In 2016, the Garretson School District was in a financial crisis. The Board passed an opt out for $500,000 in order to preserve the school’s academic and co-curricular programming. In asking constituents for this additional tax money, the board felt strongly that the community should be allowed to voice their opinion at the ballot box. In 2016, over 50% of the registered voters cast their ballot, with nearly 60% of them approving the opt out.
Much has changed since 2016. Because of the first opt out, the school district is no longer in a financial crisis, and we can see evidence of growth in our community. The City of Garretson has engaged in some dramatic infrastructure work, and available housing appears to be increasing. The district has found ways to reduce our costs, while raising staff salaries to stay competitive in the regional job market. School tax levies have gone down, due in part to paying off the 2002 Bonds a year early and the opt out request going from $500,00 in the first three years to $350,000 for the last two.
Financially, things look much better in the Garretson School District today than they did in 2016, but our growth hasn’t yet caught up with the state’s funding formula. Our local school board did pass a resolution to extend the opt out for another five years, with a reduced maximum amount of $350,000. The resolution also requires an election to be held so that our community has the chance to speak and be heard at the ballot box.
As the superintendent, the most frequent questions I have been asked are: 1) “what happens next, if the community supports this opt out extension?”; 2) “what happens if the community doesn’t support the opt out?”; and 3) “Can we really trust the school?” I’ll do my best to answer those questions.
First, “what happens if the community votes to continue with the opt out?” If the opt out is allowed to continue, we continue on as we have been, working to find ways to reduce our spending, improve our programming and provide a great education for our kids. The resolution allows the extension to be in place for five additional years. We do anticipate that in the first year, or two, that the district would not need the full $350,000 amount due to some of the one-time money that has come into the district from the Federal and State level. School funding in SD is tied to the number of students in a district, and our hope is that the community continues to grow, resulting in more families and children moving to the district. A “YES” vote allows us to continue steadily improving our school, and reducing costs in a very strategic, well-thought-out way that doesn’t negatively impact our programs.
Second, “what happens if the community doesn’t support the opt out?” Initially, the district would spend down the General Fund’s reserve amount without cutting programs. We would be able to maintain our programs for one year, or maybe two, before finding the district in the same kind of financial crisis that we saw in 2016. Eventually we would need to reduce the number of staff working in the district, which would increase class sizes, which would likely result in students open enrolling out of the district, followed by a repeat of that cycle. A “NO” vote would likely result in the district being forced to make dramatic reductions in expenses over the next couple of years, including the reduction of staff.
In order to answer the third question, I ask the community to look at what we have done in the past five years. When the initial opt out was passed, the district said we would only take what was necessary to maintain programming and build financial stability in the district. The first three years, the district requested the full opt out amount. In the last two years, the opt out request was reduced to $350,000. The district followed through with the promise to only request what was needed.
In 2016, we were at a critical point in the history of the district. It was obvious that dramatic action would be taken if the voters rejected the opt out. In 2021, we find the district at another important place in time, albeit not nearly as dramatic. I believe that one of the most significant strengths in the Garretson community is the strength of community support felt in our school. Over the last five years, we have made significant improvements in our financial condition. On May 11, 2021, we ask the community to vote “YES” and allow us to continue to make improvements in not only our financial condition, but also in our overall programming as we do our best to live by our motto – “Growing Our Future Every Child, Every Day!”