UNION CENTER — It’s back to the drawing board for a group of citizens wanting to break from the Meade School District and form their own school district.

About 100 people attended a special school board meeting Tuesday night at the new Union Center School to discuss the possibility of splitting the district in two – with rural areas to the east of Sturgis being their own district and areas around Sturgis and south remaining in the Meade School District.

South Dakota Secretary of Education Ben Jones talked about what forming a new district would entail and detailed some of the challenges those starting anew might face.

Following presentations by Jones, Matt Flett, Department of Education’s director of finance and management, Brett Burditt, Meade School District business manager and Mick Trask, spokesman for the rural patrons’ group, those on hand were allowed to ask questions.

Near the end of the meeting, Meade School Board member Courtney Mack asked Trask if the board should plan to take action on the matter at its regular meeting in October, or, based on the information presented Tuesday, prefer another month to tweak their plan.

Trask asked if it would be possible to make a second presentation to the board before they voted on the split.

“I believe there are some minor modifications that we should do as a committee to the plan. If we could do that and present it to the board before the vote, I think that would answer the few questions left,” he said.

Mack urged Trask and the committee to have everything lined up and ready to go before bringing the plan to the school board.

“Unless you have it all ironed out and you think it is 100%, don’t bring it to the board for us to vote for it to start the process,” she said.  

In past 30 years, the only reorganization that created a new school district in the state of South Dakota was the Lennox-Tea Area reorganization. 

Discussion regarding that split began in late 1998 and after several plans, and one failed election, it was successfully approved in May of 2002. 

At that time, Lincoln County was one of the fastest growing areas of the state in both population and valuation.

The rural Meade County area does not have that luxury. 

Jones listed as one of the challenges in forming their own district the fact that the rural area would be facing low enrollment for the foreseeable future.

The state aid formula is based heavily on student population, so that would mean few new sources of income would fuel the new district.

“Based on what I know today, I really have a sense that the relatively low enrollment of about 115 would indicate that this school district is not like Tea Area where there was an indication of solid growth in the district,” he said.

Inflation mandates growth, Jones said.

“Every year things get more expensive, so you have to grow to keep up,” he said. 

Other challenges include needing a high school as part of the new district, finding teaching staff, and facing a tax levy increase.

“Frankly, I recommend that you look for other options. I think there’s certainly a lot of concern and passion in this room for finding those options, and the department will support that exercise,” he said.

The main source of funds for school districts is property taxes. At the meeting Tuesday, it was revealed the when a school district reorganizes and goes out on its own, the taxpayers of the new district will still have to pay half the debt currently on the books of the parent district.

Flett said the county auditor, should the districts split, would need to put a separate property tax levy on both the Meade School District and the new district formed after the split. Based on the 2019 taxes levies, a taxpayer with ag land valued at $3.5 million would pay additional tax of $5,460. 

Someone with a house valued at $150,000 would pay about $234 more for the indebtedness and a business owner with a $500,000 property would pay about $780 more.

“Nobody gets off the hook for the current capital outlay debt. It is shared among both districts on a separate levy,” Flett said. 

The idea of splitting away from the Meade 46-1 District first surfaced when newly elected school board members John Nachtigall of Elm Springs, Lee Spring of Atall, and JT Vig of Opal asked for an item to be placed on the school board agenda in July about a district boundary change. All three live in rural areas of Meade County east of Sturgis. They have been vocal about their concerns of underfunding of the rural schools. 

Meade School District operates six schools in the rural area. Student enrollment numbers for the 2018-2019 school year showed that Opal had 15 students; Hereford, 15; Elm Springs, 14; Atall, 11; Union Center and Enning, 48 — for a total of 103.

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