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.