Rural Meade residents want school boundaries changed

Some rural Meade School District residents want to form their own school district. The map shows the current Meade School District, which encompasses 3,100 square miles. Courtesy image

STURGIS — A group of Meade School District rural residents are seeking to form their own school district, and an agenda for Monday’s Meade School Board meeting includes an item titled: “District Boundary.”

“We have a group of people who have been talking about being their own school district,” Superintendent Jeff Simmons said Wednesday.

He said the item about the district boundary was placed on the agenda at the request of the new school board members – John Nachtigall of Elm Springs, Lee Spring of Atall, and J.T. Vig of Opal. 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. 

Vig said the new board members are still researching the details of such a move and would discuss their findings at the meeting Monday, which begins at 4 p.m. at the Williams Administrative Building, 1230 Douglas St., Sturgis.

There are certain requirements that need to be met before a new district could be formed, Simmons said.

State law outlines the process for formation of a new district. First, those requesting the change need to gather signatures from 15% of the registered voters in the current district – or about 1,600 signatures. Once gathered, they are presented to the school board.

The board then must develop a plan to accomplish the desires contained in the petition. In this case, it would be voters of an existing district expressing a desire to divide the district to create a new entity.

“The area is in the east part of the school district – in the rural area,” Simmons said. “The boundary line would need to be negotiated.”

Once a plan is developed for formation of the new district and approved by the state Department of Education, it is put to a vote of everyone in the Meade School District. A new district could be formed with a simple majority vote, Simmons said.

The winds of change began to blow when at the November meeting of the Meade School Board Simmons discussed the possibility of suspending operations at the Atall School for the 2019-20 school year because of expected low student enrollment and cost of operations.

The discussions continued at the December school board meeting during an agenda item titled, “Rural Suspension of Operations and Staffing.”

Student enrollment at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year in the rural schools showed Opal had 15 students; Hereford, 15; Elm Springs, 14; Atall, 11; Union Center and Enning, 48 — a total of 103.

Spring, Nachtigall, and Vig have said they are opposed to closing any rural schools. Those three parlayed the dissatisfaction of rural residents into a landslide victory in the June school board election.

School Board President Charlie Wheeler said he knows the rural residents are not happy but emphasized that there is nothing the school district is doing with malice to rural schools.

“At this very moment, our desire is to work with and have a conversation as to what is the best way to move forward. We want everybody involved,” he said.

Wheeler said it’s disappointing to be in a place where it’s difficult to have a conversation because people are wary of what is being said.

The downside to all of this is that the Meade School District would lose the tax valuation of the ag land should a new district be formed. About 30% of the valuation of the Meade School District is ag land. In 2018, the ag land value districtwide was $594,753,311, which generated $3,596,473 in taxes much of it in the district’s capital outlay fund.

In an effort to keep up with growing enrollment, the district borrowed $20 million in 2016, which they used for a new middle school at Stagebarn and a new elementary school at Union Center. 

For the foreseeable future, the district will make payments of more than $3 million a year to debt service as part of its capital outlay budget. 

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