Meade rural schools steeped in history

Beaver Dam was one of the rural schools in Meade County in the early years. Some sod school buildings remained until 1925. Courtesy photo

STURGIS — Rural schools and rural school districts have been an integral part of Meade County’s history.

Research compiled by the Stoneville Steadies Extension Club in their Prairie Schools book showed that at one point before the drought of the 1930s, Meade County had 160 rural schools.

Elementary schools in 45 townships in Central Meade County emphasized reading, writing and arithmetic.

Educational opportunities of 1930 provided three four-year high accredited high schools – Sturgis, Faith and Piedmont. There was one three-year accredited high school at Stoneville, and two rural high schools at Hereford and Fox Ridge that provided one-year certificates. Additionally, there was St. Martin’s Academy one-year high school in Sturgis.

Donna Cammack, a longtime Meade School Board member who helped compile the Prairie Schools book, said pioneers to Meade County made every effort to provide education for their children.

One example was District #70 at Elm Springs, south of the Belle Fourche River and in the southeast part of Meade County was part of the 1876 land opening. The Pierre-Deadwood trail passed through it and settlements were made along it.

The Session Laws of 1885 stipulated that a certain area must have 20 children and a personal property value of $8,000 to establish a school. Later laws allowed for the establishment of a school with five children. Bonding was permitted, but no structure could cost more than $700 per room.

Probably the most important educational development in South Dakota during the second half of the 20th century was the move to consolidate and reorganize school districts. 

From 3,415 districts in 1945, the number declined to 196 in 1977, a reduction of 94.3%. Several more districts consolidated during the 1980s, and another 11 disappeared between 1990 and 1992 to leave the number at 178.

The final boost for reorganization came when the 1967 legislature passed Senate Bill 130 requiring all school districts to be 12-year school districts by July of 1970. By the 1970-1971 school year, so few districts remained that the 472 eliminated that year constituted 62.3% of the total, by far the largest proportion to disappear in any single year in the state.

It is thought that the rural districts in Meade County reorganized and joined the Meade School District in 1969. 

Fast forward 50 years to 2019 – the Meade School District operates five rural schools – Atall, Elm Springs, Hereford, Opal and the Central Meade County School at Union Center.

The Meade School District, facing budget constraints, cut one-third of the rural teachers for this school year. 

Rural patrons, concerned with the cutbacks, came up with the idea of splitting from the Meade School District and starting their own school district.

The group’s spokesperson, Mick Trask, said the split will provide improved educational opportunities for rural students. It also would give the rural area the opportunity to choose their own curriculum and have a better teacher to student ratio. 

This isn’t the first time rural groups have attempted to exit the Meade School District. 

Marguerite Kleven, who served on the Meade School Board from 1980 to 1991, said a group from the rural area wanted to leave the Meade School District and join the Faith School District.

Kleven said Faith was willing to take on the rural schools, but the Meade School Board voted against the departure.

Interestingly, an area around Plainview, in far east central Meade County, did leave the Meade School District and affiliated with the Faith School District.

Kleven said the same reasons patrons cited in the 1980s are those surfacing again this year.

“The funding structure on which school funding is based is bad,” she said.

The state needs to move away from property taxes to fund education, she said.

“The cost per student in rural areas is pretty high, but I think it is important to those rural area. Those people do contribute heavily and their children’s needs have to come first,” she said. 

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