Superintendent Henry Eggert came to my candidate forum last week. He also attended my opponent’s eat-and-greet at the Millstone last Monday.
Superintendent Eggert won’t be voting for me or for my opponent in the District 3 Senate election. He doesn’t live in District 3. He lives in District 23, where he took charge of the Eureka School District last summer.
Superintendent Eggert gives not one lukewarm darn who wins the District 3 Senate race. He is on fire on one issue: the survival of his school district.
Eggert’s constituents rejected a $300,000 opt-out in June. Their willingness to entertain a loan rather than a tax increase to sustain the Eureka School District indicates a lack of will for responsible fiscal planning. And come 2021, says Eggert, Eureka and many other small schools will get hit with a cap on capital outlay levies written into the complicated 2016 revision of the school funding formula (2016 SB 131) that made possible our teacher pay raises. Section 13 of that bill, now SDCL 13-16-7.2 caps school districts’ capital outlay levies (the money meant to pay for buildings and other school infrastructure, not teacher pay and programs) at $2,800 per student in 2021. In subsequent years, that cap will increase by three percent or the index factor (the Legislature’s estimate of inflation), whichever is less.
Naturally, any per-student limit on funding hits smaller schools harder than larger schools. A building with twenty classrooms costs the same to build, drywall, and heat whether it houses 200, 220, or 400 students. Smaller schools have higher per-student costs. We acknowledge that fact in our sliding general funding formula, funding smaller schools on the assumption of a 12:1 student:teacher ratio and larger schools at 15:1. The capital outlay cap ignores that fact.
Eggert told me and tells the local paper that the 2021 cap will ultimately cut Eureka’s capital outlay funds by more than half, from $1.2 million to $425,600. The capital-outlay cap gives Eureka a temporary reprieve to collect another $230K each year to pay off their new 2016 building, but after that… well, expect hard choices to be forced on Eureka, where the school is already down to bare bones:
When the opt out failed, Eggert said, the school board decided not to go back to voters immediately. But that doesn’t mean the financial problems have gone away. Cuts were made to the district budget.
Business Manager Tonya Maier said the district cut the librarian position, who also organized the makerspace program. And it did not fill a position when a teacher left for another job. That teacher handled physical education, government and health classes. Those cuts saved $75,069, she said.
Eggert said not hiring for the jobs, which he still feels are needed, meant shuffling the duties of other teachers to ensure all classes are covered. But the result was the loss of an elementary school art teacher, he said.
If the financial strain continues, he said, more cuts will have to be considered.
“We’re going to be beyond bare bones cutting into the curriculum and barely able to satisfy the state’s (requirements),” he said [Elisa Sand, “After Cuts, ‘Financial Jeopardy’ Still Looms for Eureka School, Superintendent Says,” Aberdeen American News 2018.09.30].
Superintendent Eggert says both the capital outlay and and general state aid forumlas are skewed toward the big schools (one of which sits here in my district) and that the state needs to contribute more to K-12 education. But the capital outlay cap doesn’t require state money to fix. The Legislature just needs to rediscover local control and say to Eureka, “If you need more capital outlay, go ahead and levy what you need. That’s your decision.”
Superintendent Eggert is already having to make really hard decisions in a community that just won’t support higher taxes. The least the Legislature can do is allow Eureka to keep the capital outlay funds it’s already collecting.