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Oldham-Ramona-Rutland Voters Reject Funding for New School; Consolidation Doomed?

Uh oh: voters in the newly consolidated Oldham-Ramona-Rutland school district appear not to have much faith in their new venture. An eager reader notices that voters rejected the bond issue to build a unified school building Tuesday:

Voters in the Oldham-Ramona-Rutland school district have rejected an 18.8 million dollar bond issue that would have been used to build a new school for the recently combined district. 277 “yes” votes were cast in Tuesday’s election, with 305 “no” votes. The 585 total votes represented 57 percent of the total eligible voters in the district.

Tuesday’s vote was the culmination of a series of elections in the past 18 months for the district. Voters in May of 2022 approved a merger of the Oldham-Ramona and Rutland school districts, which officially took effect this past July 1st. That vote also included a new opt-out for the combined district. Had yesterday’s bond vote passed, that opt-out would have lasted two years, but can now last up to five years [staff, “ORR Bond Election Results,” KJAM Radio, retrieved 2023.09.14].

The Madison Daily Leader calls the vote “close“, but 47% approval of a bond issue that requires 60% yeas isn’t close. It’s a signal that a sentiment expressed at community meetings preceding the vote, that district taxpayers could avoid the cost of building new buildings or renovating the existing century-plus-old school buildings in Rutland and Ramona by letting the district dissolve, may prevail.

But that seems a dreadfully pessimistic way to live and manage public affairs. If Oldhamites, Ramonans, and Rutlanders believed their school districts were doomed, why would they vote to consolidate to keep them alive for just a few more years? Rather than stumbling along in a quasi-consolidation that fails to take full advantage of consolidation by closing the two old buildings and combining staff and resources and activities into one new building that would save everybody time and money, why would they not simply accept what they deem inevitable, not pretend at a solution they will not fully fund, shutter their schools, and send all the kids to Arlington, Volga, Brookings, Chester, Madison, and DeSmet?

KSFY notes that two local farmers who campaigned against the bond issue are pushing for a quick end to the local school:

If it was up to local farmer Leroy Erickson — an Oldham High graduate who, like Hageman, has lived on a multi-generational family farm in the area his whole life — the district can’t dissolve soon enough.

“Close it down,” Erickson told Dakota News Now in an exclusive interview on Wednesday. “Finish this year and close it down.”

Erickson said the bond issue’s burden on taxpayers is too high — $1.03 for every $1,000 of valuation. Large landowners like him would be hit the hardest.

“Why spend 30 million dollars when we don’t know if we’re going to be able to keep it open that long to pay the board off,” Erickson said. “That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Both Erickson and another local farming landowner, Bill Wettlauffer, recently bought advertising space in the local Madison newspaper, encouraging a “no” vote to district residents. The two also spoke multiple times at school board meetings, making their case that a new school would be too expensive and, as Wettlauffer said in a phone conversation to DNN, “would make no common sense” [John Gaskins, “Future Uncertain for Oldham-Ramona-Rutland After Voters Reject New School,” KSFY, 2023.09.13].

If Erickson and Wettlaufer think they’ll keep their taxes down by dissolving their school district, just wait until their farms get absorbed into Brookings or Madison or some other district:

Hageman said a big misunderstanding about the impact of the new taxes — were a new high school to be built — is “not all valuations are the same. They’re completely different (as far as) if it is farm ground, or if it’s pasture ground, or if it’s slew ground. I mean, you could have a piece of land right next to each other that the valuation could drastically change. So, if you have a piece that’s not valuated as much, there won’t be quite as much taxes to pay.

“And most of our surrounding districts around us are paying more taxes than us,” Hageman said [Gaskins, 2023.09.13].

Shutting down Oldham-Ramona-Rutland won’t lower any farmers’ taxes; it will just redirect their taxes to a bigger school district that might last a little longer.

7 Comments

  1. BHSD76 2023-09-14

    It needs to be dissolved and land area merged into the surrounding districts. I say this as someone who is pro-education. Too many districts create less opportunity for students with programming and activities and lower teacher pay. I watched the presentations they gave and I could not understand spending this sort of money and then relying on open enrollment to try to fill a $30 million building.

  2. John 2023-09-14

    Let’s see. If two school districts are consolidating due to reduced enrollments . . . then it reasons that there is more than enough floor and classroom space in the existing buildings for both – even if some grades attend in one building, while other grades attend in the other building. And if not, then what is the via able use of the old buildings? Scrap? Commercial activities acceding to the tax rolls?
    Explain it to me like I’m 6 years old.

    I’m all for increased teacher pay, 220 contact school days per year, etc,; but a rural building in rural landscapes with falling populations is a dubious use of taxing.

  3. BHSD76 2023-09-14

    Yes, they could easily put K-5 in one building and 6-12 in the other for now. With enrollment on a continual downward path it’s probably only a solution for a few more years, but that’s better than spending $30 million to build a school in the middle of the country that will eventually be empty. They are already relying heavily on open enrollment to keep the doors open anyhow. Expecting the district taxpayers to spend that kind of money on kids that don’t live in the district makes no sense to me.

    I don’t live in this district so what they do is their business, but I can’t understand the thinking on this. Many times you’ll hear the argument if you take a school out of a town you’ll kill the town, but this new building would do exactly that. Combine that with declining enrollment, a district with colony schools and open enrollment students that could leave and go back to their home district at any time, none of this plan made sense.

  4. Arlo Blundt 2023-09-14

    It was less money than the Shooting Range in Rapid City, being built by the state. South Dakota has no State incentive funds available for districts to merge and build new facilities. That’s how it works in other states. The State assists financially in a big way to encourage school consolidation and for reconfigured districts to build new, modern, accessible school building. Conservative South Dakota Legislators have for years punted that far sighted program down the field.

  5. Prairie Farmer 2023-09-14

    I am not sure how they thought they could get to 60% when the consolidation vote got less than that in both districts.

  6. grudznick 2023-09-14

    When these districts do not consolidate voluntarily, the legislatures are going to step in and really jam it down their maws. They will get consolidated involuntarily, and South Dakota will be better for it.

    33 counties, 99 school districts, and less fatcat administrators. This is how you get teachers more pay.

  7. Rambler 2023-09-15

    Unfortunately I do not see a path forward for any bond issue to pass in the new consolidated district. Enough of the families who send their children to ORR as their resident district live further from the site they want to build the new school at that they will open enroll to one of the closer area schools especially to Madison and Sioux Valley. Cost of building new along with having so many Colony and open enroll student numbers are most difficult to overcome.

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