An Open Letter to the Appropriators

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.


Guy Johnson,


Be Informed! Financial Accountability and the Garretson School District

Much has been written lately in the Argus Leader and the Garretson Gazette regarding the school’s position and decisions made by the School Finance Accountability Board.  Normally, these stories include a very bold statement in the headline and details that follow only tell part of the story.

In 2016, the legislature made significant changes to the funding formula for schools.  A half-penny sales tax was enacted to pay for this increase and a portion of the tax was intended for property tax relief.  In the end, the original bill was modified to include two different models for accountability for spending the money on instructional staff.  One model included a requirement to raise teacher compensation by a certain percentage and the second required that a certain dollar amount be spent on salary and benefits for instructional staff.  Both the percentage increase and the total dollar amount was based on enrollment projections from the Dept. of Education, which were based on the previous year’s student enrollment.

That year, our board went into staff negotiations with a clear picture of what needed to be done, and at the end of those negotiations, and planned to meet both accountabilities by spending over $3,000 more than was required and increasing instructional staff compensation by one full percentage point more than was required by the law.  After negotiations, the situation changed.

At that point, we knew that we would not have as many students as the DOE projected.  Knowing that the real increases in “new” money would not match up with projected increases in funding, the Board very thoughtfully considered opportunities that could be used to ensure that our budget stayed balanced.  The law included a provision by which schools could apply for a waiver to the accountability rules for certain conditions.  The impact of declining enrollment and the financial impact of retirements were two circumstances included in the list of factors that the Accountability Board would be required, by law, to consider for a waiver.

In the spring of 2016, opportunities presented themselves as a way that District could ensure that our budget remained balanced.  First, Two teachers retired and were then replaced by first year teachers. Second, the District was able to create a shared Spanish teaching position with the Baltic School District. The Board very carefully considered whether it was appropriate to take advantage of these opportunities to maintain a balanced budget, and ultimately decided that they would put their faith in the Accountability Board to recognize those factors that are outlined in SD law as significant and worthy of consideration for a waiver to the accountability rules.

On November 16th, Board President Shannon Nordstrom and I attended the Accountability Board meeting in Pierre to tell our District’s story and ask them to consider a waiver.  At that meeting, members of the Accountability Board made it clear that they would not consider the impact of declining enrollment or the impact of teacher retirement, even though these were both clearly laid out in the law as factors for consideration in order to recommend a waiver to the rules.  In our District, the impact of declining enrollment was over $48,000 and the impact of teacher retirement was over $35,000.  Ultimately, the Accountability Board decided to recommend to the Appropriators a “conditional waiver,” which would require the District to spend an additional $62,000 on instructional staff salaries.

The process does not end with the Accountability Board.  That Board made a recommendation of this conditional waiver to the Joint Committee on Appropriations, which is made up of SD legislators.  That group will make the final decision, and we are hopeful that they will look at the provisions of the law and consider all of the factors that are laid out in it.  We ask for your patience as we learn more about what, if anything, we are required to do.  After we know the specifics, our School Board will consider our options, weigh out what they believe to be in the best interest of our District, and we will make adjustments where necessary to ensure that we are able to provide the best programming that is possible for our students and our community.

Shorted Salaries, Read Past the Headline

You may have seen the headline in the Argus Leader today (October 11, 2017), which reads “SHORTED SALARIES,” with the story superimposed over a picture of our school.  This headline, while intended to really grab the reader’s interest, seems to imply that our school district has somehow been less than above-board with respect to the use of funds provided in the 2016 legislative session.  Beyond the headline, the content in the news story is accurate.  We encourage people in the district to make sure that you read the entire article beyond the attention grabbing headlines and pictures to get the facts of the matter as it applies to the Garretson School District.


When the legislature passed the laws related to the funding increase, the law was written with two different mechanisms for accountability: one that required schools to increase the amount spent on teacher salaries and benefits by a certain percentage, and one that required districts to spend a certain amount of money, which was based on the State’s projected student enrollment numbers for each district.  In our case, the District did meet the accountability requirement for the percentage of increase for teacher salaries and benefits, but did not meet the requirement for the “total amount” spent on teacher salaries and benefits.


The law allows schools to apply to the School Finance Accountability Board for a waiver of the accountability rules.  This board then makes a recommendation to a committee of the legislature, who has the final decision.  In the law, it states that the board shall consider five factors in determining their recommendation for a waiver of the rules.  Those factors include fiscal impact due to: retirement, declining enrollment, changes in benefit expenditures such as changes in family status and health insurance, effects of unexpected resignations, and any unforeseen or extenuating circumstances affecting the school district’s ability to meet accountability targets as documented by the school district.


The Garretson School Board has discussed this issue at a number of board meetings, in open session.  This subject and the letter we received were not a surprise to the administration or the members of the school board.  We all knew clearly that we would not meet the accountability marker based on the pure dollars spent.  Of the five factors that the School Finance Accountability Board is required to consider when recommending a waiver, the Garretson School District has experienced three of them.  First, declining enrollment – the State projected that we would have 474 students in the 16-17 school year, and based our accountability numbers on that projection.  We knew that our student count would be lower than that, and adjusted our budget accordingly.  Second, retirements – we had experienced teachers retire, and hired less experienced teachers to replace them.  This results in fewer dollars being spent on instruction.  Third, unexpected teacher resignations – we had our full-time Spanish teacher resign and take a teaching position in another district.  We used this as an opportunity to create a shared teaching position with the Baltic School District to reduce the cost to both districts.


At Monday night’s board meeting, we followed through with our earlier determination, and the Garretson School Board voted unanimously to apply for a waiver to the accountability rules.  The decision was made based on careful consideration of the District’s financial situation and knowledge of the factors that the School Finance Accountability Board will consider in recommending that the rules be waived. We are confident that the decision is right for our district, and we look forward to being able to tell our District’s unique story to the Accountability Board.  Thank you for your support of the Garretson School District and your willingness to read “the rest of the story.”

Be The Change!

GMS students find an adult for activities during Challenge Day

There is nothing quite like the energy and excitement of a room full of middle school students.  If you had walked through the commons today around 8:30, you would likely have noticed the large group of middle school students waiting for something… then you would have definitely noted the volume of the group.  Students were checking in for Challenge Day, and waiting (as patiently as a large group of middle school students can wait) for the day-long program to start.

Challenge day is a unique event – designed around the ideas of inclusion, empathy and connectedness in our school.  The program goes well beyond “bullying awareness,” to address many of the most difficult aspects of growing up.  Students will have opportunities to get to know themselves, their classmates, school staff and adult volunteers from our community through music, silly games, discussions with one another and discussions with adults from our school and community.

“Be the Change” is one of the themes for the day, and is based on a quote from Ghandi – “Be the Change you wish to see in the world”.  As the event’s name implies, students are challenged to make a real difference in their own world – whether it’s making a change that benefits one person, or a change that benefits the entire community.

At about 8:45, the wait was over… it was time for our kids to head into the gym.  They arrived to music thumping and 25 adults who care about them cheering their arrival.  The big entrance sets the stage for the atmosphere where everyone respects each other, everyone participates to the extent they are able, everyone is valued, and everyone is heard.  At the end of the day, our kids will leave the gym exhausted, but ready to DO SOMETHING to make their world better.  Many will be inspired to truly BE THE CHANGE!

I look forward to seeing how this group of students responds to the challenge.  One of my favorite things about middle school students is the fact that they truly do believe that they can change the world, and this group just might!

Garretson Students Perform Well on ACT Test

Every year, students across the US take the ACT test.  This test is used by many colleges and universities as a benchmark for college readiness.  Most of those students are high school juniors, but there are also some high school seniors taking the test as well.  Garretson students tested last year continued the three year trend in which GHS students score above the state average on the ACT test.

  • English 2017 – GHS average: 22.4; SD average: 20.7
  • Mathematics 2017 – GHS average: 21.6; SD average: 21.5
  • Reading 2017 – GHS average: 22.8; SD average: 22.3
  • Science 2017 – GHS average: 22.6; SD average: 22.0
  • Composite 2017 – GHS average: 22.5; SD average: 21.8

This marks the third year in a row in which GHS students outperformed the state averages on the ACT test.  We are proud of the efforts of our staff and our students! We will continue to work hard at preparing our students for what lies beyond their high school years!

Leadership in Music

IMG_1133The Garretson School Board recognized Mr. Nick Sittig and Ms. Kelby Robinson as our March PRIDE award winners!  Mr. Sittig and Ms. Robinson have an incredible impact on our students through their direction of our music programs.

Recently, both music instructors asked their students to provide some feedback with respect to what the music programs mean to them.  Students were asked to finish the statement “music makes me feel…” and were also asked to write about the pros and cons of being part of the music program.  These are some of the things our students said:

  • Music makes me feel confident, proud of myself, dance and love myself.
  • Music makes me feel like I’m the only one on earth.
  • Music makes me feel happy when I’m down.  It puts my frown the other way around.
  • Music makes me feel understood.
  • To me, band is a way for me to express my creativity and love for music.  I enjoy the music we get to play and the friendships you make with other musicians.  Not only are you making music, you are making good memories.  I wouldn’t change a thing with our band.
  • Things I like about band: The feeling of accomplishment when you play something you never thought you could.
  • I do really enjoy band, I have always loved music and the fact that I get to help create music with my friends from some of my favorite movies and symphonies gives me joy.  Sometimes, when I’ve had a rough day or week, it is relieving to express myself through music.  The kids in band are like a family.  We may pick on each other but we are also protective of one another and its always nice to have somewhere to fit in.  I am overall a reserved person, and being in band has kind of pushed me out of my bubble by giving me the opportunity to step up.  I have also been taught to believe in my abilities considering that I am very critical of myself.

Our music programs make a difference in the lives of our students.  Ms. Robinson and Mr. Sittig both accept kids where they are, and work hard to push them to perform at levels that they may not even realize are possible.  Congratulations, Ms. Robinson and Mr. Sittig! You are part of the PRIDE of Garretson!

February Garretson PRIDE – Julie Snyders

FullSizeRender.jpgThis month, the board honored Julie Snyders with the District’s PRIDE award.  Julie was nominated by Elementary Counselor Janie Lundberg.  Ms. Lundberg’s nomination speaks for itself:

It is indeed an honor to recommend Julie Snyders for the Garretson PRIDE award.  This nomination is in recognition of her dedication to help meet the needs of the Garretson community.  Julie is one of the most self-less people I know!  She is my silent partner, and work whole-heartedly to bring blessings to others.  Julie is the type of person that does not seek recognition or praise.  She prefers that her contributions remain anonymous.  In fact, I am sure she would not want me to recognize her for this award.  However, when a person is as wonderful as Julie, they deserve to know how much they are truly appreciated, respected and admired!  When our students have a need, she is always there to help.  She often uses her own money to purchase food, warm clothing, shoes, coats, boots, hats, mittens, etc. for others.  She never asks for, nor receives, anything in return.  Julie is such a remarkable, positive, loving person.  She is one of those rare people that stands out because of her values and integrity.

Julie is also the backbone of the Garretson Angel Tree.  She generously gives her time and effort to this program.  She has enthusiastically taken it upon herself to assure that the children in our community have a bright and merry Christmas.  She volunteers, organizes, makes phone calls, lines up donors, shops for items and makes deliveries.  The Angel Tree is a success due to Julie’s tireless efforts.

I have enormous respect for Julie.  Because of her, many lives have been changed, including my own.  Julie is my inspiration.  She has touched my life and made it better.  She is a beautiful person with a heart of gold.  Julie has a send of PRIDE in her devotion to our community.  It is with great pleasure that I recommend Julie Snyders for the Garretson PRIDE award.

The nomination speaks to the work Julie does in our community more eloquently than I ever could.  Julie Snyders humbly makes a difference to kids and families in our community.  Congratulations on the award, Julie, but more than that, kudos to you for making a difference!

What do teachers do at “inservice?”

We have three days during the school year where the students do not come to school, but our staff report for staff development, or inservice.  We do our best to plan a variety of different learning activities for our staff, and we want to be sure that the time is well-spent with teachers learning things that can have an impact the way we teach our students.

In January, our staff attended the West Central Winter Symposium, a training day in which attendees are able to choose the training sessions that best suit their needs.  This year was the second year that we attended the event, and it was bigger and better this year!  Seven schools committed to the day – Garretson, Baltic, Tri-Valley, Madison, Colman-Egan, Montrose and West Central.   One of the hallmarks of this day-long training event is that the presenters are generally teachers and administrators who are doing the work in schools.  Our teachers report that learning from our peers is a positive experience, and also presents great opportunities for building a professional network of peers.

We are proud of the staff at the Garretson School District who took the risk to be a presenter for the program.  We had six presentations attributed to our staff:

  • Amy Thompson (speech therapist) and Julie Hersom (first grade) teamed up to offer “A Multi-Sensory Approach to Phonics.”
  • Alyxa Hoefert-Veldhuizen (kindergarten) presented “Class Dojo (a behavior management app) and Brain Breaks in the Classroom”
  • Jodi Neugebauer (second grade) and Teresa Johnson (elementary principal) paired up to tell others about our implementation of Inquiry-based learning and Genius Hour in the elementary classroom
  • Kelsey Buchholz (HS english) shared research and practical knowledge regarding Movement in the High School Classroom
  • Dave Mudder (PE) presented to peers the many strategies he uses in the physical education classroom in “Shoot from the Hip”
  • Chris Long shared lessons learned in Parent Communication through ICU and Teacher-Initiated Communications.

We are proud of our staff members who were willing to take the risk to present to their peers!  The strength of professional development days like the West Central Winter Symposium comes from teachers from all of these different districts sharing what they know works well in their classrooms.  We’ve got experts doing great things in the classrooms in our district.  The Symposium was a great opportunity for them to share that expertise and build a network of professional peers that will help us to serve our students more effectively in the classroom!

Applications for Free and Reduced Lunch Help the District


People sometimes wonder if they should apply for reduced priced meals at school.  It might be that they’re too proud to accept the help that their family needs.  It might be that they feel someone else has higher needs than they.  What people might not know is that if their family qualifies for the program, our school benefits from that as well.

There are a number of programs from the Federal Government that our school uses in which funding levels are determined by the percentage of our students who qualify for free or reduced price meals.  Many grants from charitable organizations also depend on the percentage of students in the District who qualify for assistance in the school lunch program.  There are times when we see a fantastic grant opportunity, only to read through the award qualifications and realize that not enough of our students participate in the program to allow us to apply.  If you’re curious as to whether your family may qualify, you can find the eligibility guidelines here.

If you have questions about the program or how your application might help our school, please call Guy Johnson at the school office (594-3451).  Help us out!  If you think you might qualify for the program, pick up an application and apply!

Governor’s Ed Bills Will Reduce Impact of Opt Out

Governor Daugaard signed a number of bills last week that will have an impact across the State of South Dakota.  At least two of these bills will also make a difference locally in the Garretson School District – not by making our need to pass the opt out  less, but by reducing the necessary tax increase if it passes and  by providing the district the funding to remain a viable and competitive employer in the region around Sioux Falls.

One bill, HB 1182 was the bill that will increase sales taxes in the state by 0.5 cents, with some of that money intended to increase teacher salaries and the other portion intended for property tax relief.

Another bill, SB 131 has much more detail than 1182.  This is the bill that defines the formula that will be used to determine the total General Fund needs that school districts have, based on the number of students.  This bill has many components, one of which was the abolition of the Pension Fund Levy ($0.30 / 1,000).  The intent of the legislature was to combine the current GF levy and the Pension Fund Levy into one tax.  The bill also changes the way schools will tax for the Capital Outlay Fund.  Essentially, this bill will slow the growth of the CO fund to the rate of inflation, or 3%, whichever is less.

On Thursday of last week, the Legislature set the tax levies for the General Fund and the Pension fund (remember that SB 131 combined the two levies into one tax).  When we calculated the tax increase for the opt out, we worked with the county auditor’s office to come up with the figures and did not take the tax relief into account.  The table below shows the difference that we can expect if the community supports the opt out in the March 22 election.

Opt Out levy Changes 2016

The numbers in the chart above are all reported as a “dollars per thousand in taxable valuation.”  Using these updated figures, we have recalculated the impact of a yes vote on the opt out.  The following chart shows good news regarding the impact of this legislation and how it will affect people in our community if the opt out is tax relief opt out costpic  We will find out more in the coming weeks regarding exactly what these two bills mean for schools financially.  These calculations were made based on the best data available, and we will adjust as necessary as more information is released from the SD Department of Education regarding the funding formula and tax relief.  If our community chooses to support the opt out, the cost will be less than initially anticipated.