The number of school districts in South Dakota will decrease by at least one in 2023. In a special election Tuesday, voters in the Oldham-Ramona and Rutland school districts approved consolidating their districts. The vote was 143 for and 117 against in Oldham-Ramona and 124 for and 117 against in Rutland. Consolidation requires majority approval from each participant district, so had just four people in Rutland changed their minds from yea to nay, or if just eight naysayers among the 215 registered Rutland voters who stayed home had come to the polls, consolidation would have failed. Turnout in Rutland was 53%; turnout in Oldham-Ramona was 49%.
According to information presented at a public meeting in April, voters will elect a new consolidated ORR school board in November, and the districts will officially combine on July 1, 2023, forming a bow-tie-shaped district spanning northern Lake County and reaching into southeastern Kingsbury County, northeastern Miner County, and western Moody County. The new consolidated district will cover 317.35 square miles, just a bit above the current median South Dakota school district area of 311.85 square miles.
The combining districts plan to build a new K-12 school right on the knot of the bow tie, along but safely set back from Highway 81. Logical locations would be the US 81 intersections with the Nunda oil (223rd St) or the Ramona road (225th St), but it’s up to the new consolidated school board to pick a location and call for the bond vote necessary to raise the funds to build a single building for the entire district. If voters approve the bond, the new district would have all students under one roof in time for the beginning of the 2025–2026 school year.
In November, Mike Siefker of the Kingsbury Journal reported that the consolidation could bring the districts’ combined operational costs down from $4 million to $3 million. According to district data updated by the DOE in December 2021, Rutland was paying 21.34 certified instruction FTEs an average salary of $38,399, the lowest average teacher salary of all South Dakota districts. Oldham-Ramona was paying 19.00 certified instruction FTEs $41,390, the fifth-lowest average teacher pay in South Dakota. The student to staff ratio in Rutland was 8.2; in Oldham-Ramona, 8.5. The new ORR district will have a combined K-12 enrollment around 330. School districts of comparable enrollment—Castlewood, Howard, Viborg-Hurley, Bridgewater-Emery, Alcester-Hudson, Kimball, Warner, Freeman—average around 13 students per staff. Applying that ratio to the new ORR district would reduce the certified instructional FTEs by 14, to 26. (That’s 14 full-time teaching jobs disappearing from the Oldham-Ramona-Rutland-Arlington-Madison metroplex.) Reduce the amount the districts are spending on teacher salaries by the same 25% savings factor cited for overall operational costs, and the combined district could spend $1.2 million on that slimmed-down staff, raising the average teacher pay in the new district to $46,460, above the median pay among all South Dakota school districts of $46,160.
Over the past 20 years, 43 districts have consolidated into 24 new combinations; the most recent consolidations were Corsica and Stickney in 2016 and Hurley and Viborg in 2013. Nine districts have dissolved since 2000; the most recent was Grant-Deuel in 2018. South Dakota gained one school district in 2004 when Tea split off from Lennox.
Since the great reorganization of the school systems in the 1960s and 1970s, the number of school districts in South Dakota has declined from 196 in AY 1977 to 149 today. If Oldham-Ramona and Rutland voters can finally accede to practicality to bring that number down to 148, a look at the map should invite us to wonder who will tie the next consolidation knot: Florence and Henry? Leola and Frederick? Marion and Parker? Gregory and Burke?