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Supt. Mitchell: Even with Opt-Out, Rapid City Forced to “Do More with Less”

Supt. Tim Mitchell, Rapid City Area Schools, addresses Black Hills Forum and Press Club, 2015.03.27.
Supt. Tim Mitchell, Rapid City Area Schools, addresses Black Hills Forum and Press Club, 2015.03.27.

Dr. Tim Mitchell superintends a school district with a student body the size of the entire town of Pierre and a staff (teachers, sweepers, everybody) the size of Volga or Webster. As he discussed the Rapid City Area Schools’ property-tax opt-out yesterday at the Black Hills Forum and Press Club, he acknowledged that state law forbids him from doing anything but offering factual information about the opt-out. He cannot use his office or any public resources to promote the opt-out if it goes to a public vote (and my understanding is that petitioners are ready to go).

But listeners could tell Dr. Mitchell wants to advocate for his city of students and staff.

Mitchell’s people are doing good work. Rapid City schools are increasing the Native American graduation rate (but remember: in this difficult field, progress means rising from 34% to 39%). Overall attendance has improved from 94% to 95%. Indian education specialist Junior Bettelyoun has increased recruitment of Native American staff. Rapid City is beating the state and nation on average ACT scores. The district is on the Advanced Placement honor roll.

Mitchell’s people score these achievements in a district that exceeds the state average for “gap” students (poor, minority, special needs). Rapid City has more homeless students than Chamberlain, Mitchell’s previous district, has students.

Amidst these increasing needs, Dr. Mitchell has overseen a funding decline from a peak general fund of $82.4 million in FY2010 to a four-year flatline of $79 million. (Fall enrollment FY 2010: 13,126. Fall enrollment FY2014: 13,702.) Throughout his five-year tenure at Rapid City, Dr. Mitchell has had to do more with less. He’s had to continue the decade-plus trend that nearly every school in South Dakota has faced of cutting opportunities for students just to keep the lights on in the math and English classrooms.

The six-million-dollar, five-year opt-out doesn’t put any of those lost opportunities back. Dr. Mitchell says the additional revenue will only let his school stop cutting and keep the programs, staff, and bus routes it has now. Overturn the opt-out, and Mitchell says the district will need to cut 85 staff.

RCAS board member Jeff Nelsen asked Superintendent Mitchell to address the suggestion some budget hawks make to cut extracurricular activities. Dr. Mitchell said Rapid City’s extracurriculars cost two million dollars, a third of the opt-out and a mere 4% of the total general fund. For that fractional investment, the community gets programs that impact every student, keep kids in school, and improve academic performance. And the district is already telling its coaches to cut their budgets 10%.

Asked about public charges that he lacks leadership, Dr. Mitchell said it is hard to “deconstruct education,” to “take programs away from kids.” The trade-offs, the pain of such actions, the knowledge that he is hurting the kids he is called to serve arouse emotion that caused him to pause in his speech, just as he said it causes him to pause in his decision-making process as he asks, Is this the best we can do for our kids? Must we really take all these programs away just to keep the school open?

If a referendum arises, Dr. Mitchell can’t advocate, but I will, and Rapid City parents should. Your stingy state is shortchanging your kids. Until Rapid City changes its legislators (that’s next year), Rapid City will have to reach into its own pockets to bear the cost of keeping rich educational opportunities for its kids.


  1. grudznick 2015-03-28

    The comments on the newspaper’s website seem to be tilting into a real anger towards these fatcat administrators with their reserved parking spaces. Looks like maybe some angry and disgruntled fellows will put this on a vote like what Mr. H wants to do with the things that make him angry and disgruntled. I look forward to signing some of these petitions.

  2. Curt 2015-03-28

    Grudz –
    You should probably sign just one petition per issue.
    WhattheHell kinda name is ‘grudznick’ anyway? /cp

  3. grudznick 2015-03-28

    Curt. My name is Nickolas. I think it has some Greek thing behind it. For various reasons people call me Grudz.

  4. Donald Pay 2015-03-29

    The whole “lacks leadership” issue is a real stunner. You really want some Pol Pot as Superintendent who views his main mission as killing the dreams of students? That’s what Governors are for, and we’ve had a string of them who take great pleasure in it.

  5. John 2015-03-29

    Only $2 million for extra-curricular expenses? You’ve got to be kidding us as if you’re using 3rd grade math. Add in the costs for fields (and the opportunity cost for lost residential property taxes), locker rooms, gyms, band rooms, etc. in every school, and the long-term cost for the public footing the bill for “play time” extra-curricular costs slides into view. That mere $2 million is only current budget costs, ignoring the long-term and big picture. School is for scholarly activities. Boot the “play time” into private clubs. The educational results in the educated first world show and lead the way (Singapore, Japan, Finland, Denmark, the Scandinavian Nations, Germany, Japan, South Korea, etc.
    Look, the Rapid City boys hockey team didn’t need school district support to be the best in the State.

  6. Donald Pay 2015-03-29

    John couldn’t be more wrong. He must be one of the 1 percent, Scrooge and/or totally out of touch with the reality of most South Dakotans if he thinks they could afford to have their kids in “private clubs.” Where are the private clubs in Smee, I wonder.

    But, also, he’s out to lunch on the costs. Unless you’re getting rid of physical education and recess at the elementary level, you still need fields, locker rooms, and gyms. Music classes, including band and strings, are academic classes in many districts. Extra-curricular activities use these facilities after academic classes using these facilities are over. Also, many districts encourage adults to use the facilities in the evenings, and districts do make some money off of them. Booster clubs help defray the costs of equipment, and city governments, at times, partner to share costs and use.

    Sure, there are some extra costs for extra-curricular activities, but the costs are miniscule, and well worth it. The kids providing the most problems and extra costs to the district are generally those who aren’t involved in extra-curricular activities.

  7. Jana 2015-03-29

    That’s true Mr. Pay, but also notice that the countries John holds up also have a little different form of healthcare insurance than we do.

    Priorities I guess.

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