Tri-Valley Superintendent Says Laptop/Funding Gambit Legal But Can’t Stand Bad Press

Tri-Valley school district superintendent Mike Lodmel thought it would be a good idea to offer home-school students free laptops if they would come and sit in his school buildings for one day to boost Tri-Valley’s enrollment numbers and the state funding based thereupon. As of bedtime yesterday, he still thought it was a good idea… just not good enough to stand up to media, legislative, and gubernatorial scrutiny.

In a Facebook apology last night, Dr. Lodmel provided the reasoning that led him to propose the plan. I reprint in full, with commentary interspersed:

As you are probably aware, our school district is currently in the media. I would like to explain the situation, so at least that the facts are out there. This will be my last statement made on this matter [Dr. Mike Lodmel, post on Tri-Valley School District 49-6 Facebook page, 2017.09.14].

Last statement? Maybe to the press, but I suspect Dr. Lodmel will have a few more statements to make to the Governor, the Attorney General, legislators, and interested citizens. These things don’t go away just because you say they go away.

School districts are funded based on enrollment on the last Friday in September. In our district, we have had students enroll on the following Monday (some with significant needs) that our district did not receive funding for because they were not enrolled on the last Friday in September. We are a 1:1 technology school district. I had the thought of providing our public school exempt students (commonly referred to as “home-schooled”) with a laptop if they enrolled in our district for the last Friday of September. I figured this would be a win-win, for both our school district and our home-school families. Our district would receive additional funding and our resident home-school families, if they so choose, would have received a laptop as well as a speaker on that date about potential dangers of social media, the internet, etc.

Lodmel makes an interesting comparison to the school’s standing technology expenditures. Making laptops available to home school students helps ensure they have access to the same quality educational materials as public school children, as surely as the textbooks public schools are required to loan their textbooks to resident kids not enrolled in public school… but then so does sending your kids to public school. And Lodmel’s offer went beyond loaning materials: he offered computers for the homeschoolers to keep, free and clear.

The first thing I did was contact our school attorney, who assured me that this was legal. Secondly, I asked our school board for their thoughts on the subject. It was unanimously supported (verbally, no formal motion) by the school board, and I proceeded.

The board supported this ploy (in open session, I assume), but did not authorize it officially in any way that would show up in the official minutes. Smooth!

The school attorney may well be right. I need to reread Title 13, but off hand, I can’t think of any law Lodmel violated. The funding formula sets enrollment on the last day of September as the official count for funding for the whole year. If a bunch of new kids come to school that day, the school gets more funding. If a bunch of kids wait until October 3 to move to the district, the district gets no more funding until next school year. That’s how the game is played; Dr. Lodmel intended to optimize his playing of the game. There’s no flag to throw on that play yet.

I talked to our home-school liaison and explained the offer. I also typed up a letter to the home-school families explaining in detail the offer. I tried to be as transparent as possible. Again, I felt it was a win-win. Our home-school liaison meet with the home-school families and delivered the letter that I had typed.

Dr. Lodmel is right here. His previous actions don’t smell of subterfuge. His letter makes clear the intent and fiscal impact of his gambit. If this were an illegal plan, Lodmel would never have risked putting it on paper that dozens of homeschool parents would happily pour as gravy on top of whatever beef they have with the public school system.

In our school district, we will continue to lose approximately $52,000 a year due to equalization of other revenues and I really felt that this was a no-harm way of thinking outside of the box to offset this lose in revenues. I don’t believe we can keep going back time and time again to our taxpayers of our district in the form of passing and raising opt-outs.

No harm… I don’t think that term is going to sit well with the Governor and other budget hawks… but even if Tri-Valley had enrolled 40 new kids, the cost to the state would have been “only” about $125,000. We just wrapped up a fiscal year with a $7.9-million surplus, enough to fund 63 schools to recruit 40 homeschoolers each to come sit in their classrooms on September 29 (there’s still two weeks to organize your plans, Waverly, Florence, Henry, Ipswich…).

This morning, I fielded several phone calls about the letter from “concerned individuals” from throughout the state. Frankly, our district has rescinded the offer because (I feel) moving forward just wouldn’t be worth it. I have spoken to our school attorney again today, who is confident in the legality of what we proposed.

I’m puzzled here: wouldn’t be worth it? The math still works out. If the plan is legal, Tri-Valley scores a coup. Maybe most homeschool parents have already loaded their kids up with laptops and don’t want their children’s pious minds polluted with your dirty secular machines… but come on, some parents as rational as Lodmel would bite. The Governor would close this formula-gaming down come next fiscal year, but in the meantime, Tri-Valley makes out. The press won’t keep calling all year; things will settle down, and for one school year, Tri-Valley can invest in some improvements. If bad press is the only negative to this plan, stick with the plan!

I honestly didn’t believe this would be “such a big deal.” I truly have our district’s best intentions at heart and have been assured by our attorney that everything was fine, legally speaking.

With that being said, it certainly wasn’t our (my) intentions to cause any ripples, hurt any feelings, and receive the media attention that this topic has gotten. There’s a lot better things going in Tri-Valley that should be more newsworthy then this.

Please accept my apology.
Dr. Mike Lodmel, Superintendent

At the end, it sounds like Lodmel is responding more to perceived bad press than practical policy. If the policy is legal and beneficial, who cares what the paper says? Plow through, bring home the bacon, show parents in the district what you spend your cleverly gained money on, and the local press turns positive. The only negative press comes from anti-tax cranks who don’t want schools getting any money and from other districts who are just grouchy that they didn’t think of it first or have the moxie to carry it out.

Assuming, of course, as Lodmel thrice asserts, that this plan was legal and does not constitute some sort of bribery to secure public funds that the school district does not deserve.

15 Responses to Tri-Valley Superintendent Says Laptop/Funding Gambit Legal But Can’t Stand Bad Press

  1. Nick Nemec

    Can districts with private schools play the same gambit? Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Aberdeen and others could invite all the students of local parochial schools to the public school for a day of outreach and everyone gets a laptop to carry home.

  2. mike from iowa

    In order to give away laptops, wouldn’t they have had to be purchased already?
    Do all public students get free laptops?
    Where did the funding for laptops come from and how would as nyone know how many they need to purchase?

  3. Nick Nemec

    This might be a good time for a debate about the spirit of the law verses the letter of the law.

  4. A debate informed by the difference between “average daily attendance” (ADA) and “average daily membership” (ADM) when reporting student numbers.

    BTW, the problem of sporadic attendance at schools is felt especially in districts on or near reservation communities. Kids may attend and drop opt several times a year, for a variety of reasons. If they’re not present when attendance is counted for state aid purposes, they aren’t included when state aid is calculated.

  5. Joe Nelson

    We are moving, so we will not be around to take advantage of this. However, even if we were, we would not. Even if legally allowed, it very much appears to be an abuse of the system, and the public would get a poor impression of home schooling families. If Tri-valley wants more enrollment, they should offer a better education than a homeschooled child would receive (good luck!). Too bad homeschooling families can’t suck off the government teat like public schools do, my kids would certainly get more resources for their education.

  6. Richard Schriever

    The problem appears to be in relying on a single day’s enrollment for the formula calculations. It should be based (like it is for athletic classifications) on ADM – (Average Daily Membership).

  7. The problem with either ADA or ADM rather than state aid fall enrollment is that we have to wait all year to calculate an average on which to base funding, but we’re writing checks right now. Perhaps the new formula that we’ll get from the Governor’s angry response to Lodmel’s gambit will base funding on ADM from the previous year with an adjustment based on an Olympic average of attendance during September.

  8. Mr. Lansing

    Could every student/parent sign an “intend to attend” statement at the end of the previous school year? The summer could be used to calculate and cut checks and an adjustment/penalty or increase could be assessed sometime during the school year. Maybe during winter break.

  9. I don’t why everyone is getting so upset; the state often does things that border on the unscrupulous in regards to school funding without blinking an eye. By law, the per-student allocation is adjusted annually by the same rate as inflation (as measured by the Consumer Price Index) or 3 percent, whichever is less. If memory serves, then Gov. Mike Rounds proposed during the 2010 legislative session that schools receive a zero percent increase for general and special education. My memory has faded a bit over the years; I can’t remember if the legislature passed a new law to make this gimmick possible, or simply chose to follow Rounds and openly break state law by making no adjustment to the per-student allocation at all.

  10. Dave gets me thinking about when the end of September fall enrollment became the defining day for state aid, as defined in SDCL 13-13-10.1. The funding formula revision for the teacher pay raise in 2016 (SB 131) did not change that definition. We’d have to dig through multiple session laws (“…SL 2010, ch 81, § 1; SL 2010, ch 82, § 1; SL 2010, ch 83, § 1; SL 2010, ch 84, § 1; SL 2011, ch 89, § 1, eff. Mar. 17, 2011; SL 2011, ch 90, § 2; SL 2011, ch 91, § 2; SL 2013, ch 7, § 37; SL 2014, ch 80, § 1; SL 2014, ch 81, § 1; SL 2015, ch 88, § 1; SL 2015, ch 89, § 4; SL 2016, ch 83, § 4; SL 2017, ch 76, § 2; SL 2017, ch 79, § 4”) to find when that date was placed in statute… and I’m hungry for lunch right now!

  11. Donald Pay

    I think that date or a similar date in September has been around a long time, maybe since the mid-1990s.

    The issue has always been framed around schools being able to plan around the highest population of students. There tends to be a gradual decline through the year due to move outs, parents deciding to homeschool or put kids in private school and drop outs, but that decline may not mean districts can cut a class or teacher. They have certain costs that are fixed.

  12. Donald’s explanation is pretty good. Schools need a deadline by which their budget will be fixed. They hire teachers, their biggest budget item, based on enrollment. They make contracts. They can’t drop teachers mid-year just because 10% of the kids move away. Of course, in the other direction, schools may not be able to (and may not need to) hire a new teacher if a new plant opens and the district gets an influx of 20 kids; we just squeeze the kids into the classrooms where they fit and consider how to rebudget for next year.

  13. Donald Pay

    If I remember correctly, however, the population count affects the next year’s state aid. So, yeah, you could change the count dates.

    I can’t recall if the count affects present year or next year state aid. Anyone know that? If it affects next year you could change the dates.

    Districts differ, though. In RC, several schools in northern Rapid served a lot of homeless and low income students. Those schools had lots of mobility and changing numbers.

  14. Mike Boswell

    Legal or Not it is not ethical. At least they are doing for the good of the school and not putting in their own pockets. (Not giving an excuse). I am sure to lesser degrees other school districts skirt the books to bring in more dollars to their schools. I would image that is done for many municipal and state levels. This is an extreme example of it.

  15. I don’t think you’re listening to your GOP Party former Lt. Governor Steve Kirby, Mike Boswell. Mr. Kirby says “If it’s legal it’s ethical.”