A new funding formula for South Dakota's K-12 public schools is either a move towards efficiency in order to boost teacher pay or a change that will harm already struggling small schools, some state lawmakers argued at a crackerbarrel town hall meeting in Rapid City on March 5.
SB131 changes the funding formula from a per-student basis to one based on a student-teacher ratio. Under SB131, schools would no longer be funded with a certain amount for each enrolled student but would instead by funded based on a formula that divides the number of students enrolled by the number of teachers needed to meet a target ratio. The funding for the ratio would provide an average teacher salary of $48,500.
The ratio would be 12 students per teacher for districts with fewer than 200 students and 15 students per teacher for districts with more than 600 students. Ratios for schools in between would fall somewhere in between and be calculated by a formula laid out in SB131.
In addition, SB131 would take what's been known as "other revenue" from various utilities including taxes on telephone lines and wind farms and gradually incorporate that into the state formula. Under the existing formula, those "other revenues" have been paid to whichever school district they originate in above the K-12 funding formula.
SB133 would set up a series of incentives and cost-sharing options that school districts could take advantage of.
Rep. Lance Russell, R-Hot Springs, has been an outspoken critic of the proposed new formula, saying it "declares war" on small schools by forcing hundreds of teachers across the state to "be fired." Russell contends the ratios of the new formula would force smaller, remote schools to cut teachers, citing an irony when the intention of the new formula is to address a teacher shortage.
"In areas of the state that have really had the teacher shortage and a hard time attracting teachers, those districts will be hurt the worst under the governor's new formula," Russell said. "Rapid City will gain dramatically under the bill. Everybody here should be happy about that."
Supporters of the new plan argue it will force schools to operate efficiently, and they believe inefficient operations have led to the state's chronic 51st national ranking for teacher pay when it ranks 40th for overall K-12 funding.
"The formula is an attempt to force some efficiency," said Rep. Dan Dryden, R-Rapid City. "There is no requirement to get rid of teachers. If you want to continue with an inefficient ratio, you've got to figure out how to pay for it."
Lawmakers have cited ratios below 10 students per teacher at some small schools, with examples as low as 6 to 1.
Rep. Jeff Partridge, R-Rapid City, said the new ratios coupled with a requirement that a certain portion of state funding go directly to teacher salaries are the Legislature's attempt to impose some accountability on public schools for how state money gets spent.
"We want to know the funding is going into the classroom," Partridge said.
Rep. Jacque Sly, R-Rapid City, said that schools with additional need have additional revenue, mostly federal funding, that could help prevent them from cutting some teachers. For example, schools that serve a high-poverty population get extra federal funding, and districts that include federal land that is not taxed receive federal money to replace would-be property taxes.
Other lawmakers said several schools have large savings accounts, which would be capped at a percentage of their operating budget under the new formula. To keep some teachers, those districts could spend some from savings to hit the target teacher salary of $48,500, the said.
Lawmakers were asked why they are not considering a plan that would force the consolidation of small schools that operate near other small schools, primarily in the eastern part of the state.
Sly said the new formula is an attempt to nudge schools in that direction without a state mandate. Already, some districts share sports teams and sometimes some staff. As more of that happens under the new formula, Sly believes conversations about consolidation will happen more easily at the local level.
"We have examples of school districts realizing, 'We are no longer viable. We have to work with the districts around us,'" she said. "That can move forward at the local level. It is happening now, just not as fast as some would like it to happen."
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