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KATIE ZERR: Perfect storm makes for tough decisions

There are times that our positivity about a situation is tempered when reality sets in with consequences that are not so positive.
That is what has been happening for a while now with the Mobridge-Pollock School District.
Many of us, including area legislators and school officials, were very positive when the aid to students formula was changed and a new law was passed to help fund an increase in teacher salaries.
Both of these actions by the South Dakota Legislature are positive. The new law helped get teachers a raise they sorely deserve and helped to boost funding for students which helps districts to offer classes and curriculum to meet the changing needs of students in our world.
But a perfect storm has hit the Mobridge-Pollock District and it is causing funding problems that the district hasn’t experienced in a while.
With little capital outlay fund flexibility (which the board has used in previous years) to aid meeting salaries, the board had to come up with other means to meet those needs. The new legislation has forced the district to spend down their reserves to below 25 percent to keep districts from stockpiling funds.
A dramatic fall in the number of students attending classes in the district coupled with meeting the accountability standards built into the new funding legislation and hitting the salary goals to keep the district competitive in the state has caused revenue problems.
A projected student population of 598, down from the high of 682 in 2015, is a great concern for the district. The numbers show a steady decline since 2015 and with no larger classes expected to come into the district in the near future, it means less state funding.
Meeting the teacher to student ratio expectations of the new legislation means the district, which presently has 44.16 certified instructional staff, must meet the standard of 41.8 instructional positions. That means making tough decisions to meet those standards. The Mobridge-Pollock School Board was put in a position on Monday of making a decision that impacts the lives of their staff.
The library was filled with teachers watching and listening to the discussion about in which direction the board would go. Even with the move to opt out of the tax limitations, the district will still be short of funding going into the 2018-2019 school year.
There was a possibility that two positions would be cut. One reading instructor and the counselor position held by Jody Kludt were in jeopardy. These are both very important positions and it was up to the board to make a very difficult decision.
After an in depth discussion, with administration and board members explaining in detail why this decision was being made, the board went into executive session.
The group of teachers gathered in the commons area to await the decision that could impact two of those present. There was a little fight in them, but the inevitable was staring them in the face. It was possible that two would be out of a job in a matter of minutes.
The board debated for a long time before resuming the regular meeting with their decision made.
Facing the teachers, board president Eric Stroeder talked about the difficulty of the decision. He said the board feels like the staff is a big family and it is extremely difficult on the board as well as the staff. He said these are not people who work a regular job but people who help to formulate the lives of 15 or more children every day.
The board made the decision to cut the reading teacher position, but to retain the counselor position. They said they would look at cutting costs in other places to find the funding for the counselor salary.
Mobridge-Pollock Superintendent Tim Frederick said when the new salary legislation was passed, the board made an aggressive move with salaries to become competitive in the area. He said the board members felt it was necessary to bring in good teaching candidates to fill open positions. He said in that regard, the district has had more applicants from which to choose when filling positions.
The board also discussed possibly bussing students from within and outside of the district. Other districts send buses into the Mobridge-Pollock District but no buses go outside this district to pick up students. Possibly two busses would have to be purchased to accomplish the bussing.
Frederick said the district needs to do a better job of letting students and parents know about the great things that this district has to offer in both academic and extra curricular activities.
That is where we come in. Anyone who knows a family that is sending their kids outside of the district could talk to them about staying home for school. We could talk to parents outside of the district about coming into Mobridge for the benefits available here.
It could be the push that saves the district from having to make another gut-wrenching decision.
– Katie Zerr –