In what promises to be a wide-ranging meeting next week Thursday and probably Friday, the Government Operations and Audit Committee will discuss Tri-Valley school superintendent Mike Lodmel’s ill-fated gambit to inflate his enrollment numbers and the concomitant state funding by offering free laptop computers to homeschoolers who would attend Tri-Valley for one day, the final headcount day, September 29.
GOAC has invited Dr. Lodmel and his school board chair Leslie Johnson to attend the Thursday/Friday meeting at Carnegie Town Hall in Sioux Falls. GOAC simply tells Johnson that they want to ask about “how the school district determines fall enrollment, which is used in the determination of State Aid.” GOAC’s questions for Lodmel are more specific:
- Was the objective, of the Tri-Valley letter to parents of homeschool students, to have a one-day higher enrollment for the day the state education funding formula determines student enrollment?
- Are there other situations where school districts attempt to include students in their headcount that likely do not reflect their full-time student enrollment for the year?
- Are you aware of other school districts engaging in similar offers or behavior? If you are aware of similar types of offers, how long has this been going on?
- Would you support the Department of Legislative Audit examining 5-10 school districts that may have the highest disparity between the student enrollment figure for purposes of the funding formula and the number of high school graduates the previous spring (or some other objective measure)?
- What recommendations do you have for adjusting the school funding formula to avoid attempts to game student headcounts for purposes of garnering more state funds?
- Consider an alternative unannounced date for counting student enrollment?
- Make headcounts subject to a periodic audit?
- Have student headcounts periodically reviewed by the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee.
- Should there be a fine for any of this behavior which is uncovered? [GOAC to Mike Lodmel, 2017.09.21]
(In tiny digs, GOAC addresses its letter to “Mr. Lodmel”, not “Dr.”)
GOAC has also invited Dr. Lodmel’s neighbor (competitor?) Chester superintendent Heath Larson to respond to the third, fourth, and fifth+subpoints questions listed above. While Dr. Lodmel’s response either hasn’t arrived or hasn’t been posted to GOAC’s meeting webpage yet, Mr. Larson’s September 27 letter is online. Larson says he knows of no other schools besides Tri-Valley attempting to pad enrollment numbers (Larson doesn’t use those words, just refers to “this” and “recent attempt” in reference to GOAC’s language of “attempt to include students in their headcounts that likely do not reflect their full-time student enrollment”). He defends school districts and local control and responds cautiously to the suggestion of DLA action:
…I would not oppose nor support an examination from the Department of Legislative Audit for any school due to not knowing at this time if additional school staff would need to be hired or a disruption of the learning environment would occur [Heath Larson to GOAC, 2017.09.27].
Larson voices similar agnostic toward the other proposed legislative responses, asking if the Department of Education could manage an unannounced count date and if such a program would impinge on DOE’s ability to provide other “valuable technical assistance for school districts.” He says the Legislature should determine “if a fine is appropriate and if so, the respective amount,” although we should keep in mind that the Legislature can only determine a fine for future such activities, not for Lodmel’s already offered and rescinded enticements, which current law appears not to prohibit. Even if Attorney General Marty Jackley can find a statute under which to squeeze Lodmel, the court will determine the fine, not the Legislature.
GOAC convenes Thursday at 1 p.m., and Tri-Valley is the fifth item on the agenda. The meeting’s biggest potential potboiler, the GEAR UP/Mid-Central scandal, is sixth, so it’s possible GOAC could steam through the preceding items and get to Tri-Valley on Thursday.
Related: The religious wingnuts love this story, because they get to say “probed” and because they can use Lodmel’s gambit to show how evil public schools are. But even they, in the form of the Home School Legal Defense Association, admit Lodmel broke no law:
HSLDA, which found out about it when alarmed parents contacted the organization, concluded there was nothing technically or legally out of bounds for the families.
“This offer poses no problem of a strictly legal nature,” explained Scott Woodruff, the organization’s point person for the state.
However, he explained there are issues for parents to consider.
…HSLDA’s Woodruff suggested homeschooling parents keep in mind that South Dakota law requires children to get “certain immunizations” to be in public schools, and children in school for a single day could make comments about their homeschooling or family that could lead to further questions. He also asked them to consider “what message might parents send their children by putting them in a system that is forbidden from telling the truth about God” and by being willing to do something they don’t believe in for money.
He said HSLDA “provides no advocacy services with respect to a child who is enrolled full time in public school” [Bob Unruh, “Superintendent Probed for ‘Scam’ Involving Homeschoolers,” World Net Daily, 2017.09.29].
Keep an eye out for homeschool advocates at Thursday’s GOAC hearing in Sioux Falls telling their stories to legislators off mic. Heck, attending the hearing would be a worthwhile homeschool civics lesson for the kids….