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Discussion of rural closures draws crowd at Meade School District meeting

December 14, 2018

STURGIS — The Williams Administrative boardroom was filled to capacity with most of the crowd wanting to voice concern over the agenda item, Rural Suspension of Operations and Staffing, at the Monday meeting of the Meade School District board.

“The purpose of this agenda item is to open dialogue and develop a plan that we, and when I say we, I mean the Meade 46-1 School District and the patrons of the rural area, develop a plan together,” said Jeff Simmons, superintendent. “The vision should not solely be a recommendation from the superintendent’s desk, but developed together with the patrons from Opal, Hereford, Atall, Union Center, Enning, and Elm Springs schools and the school board.”

The plan that will be developed should be a guide moving into the future and will give direction for decisions, he said, creating meaningful educational experiences for the students that the school district serves in a fiscally responsible and realistic way.

Consideration includes the number of preschool students, how many years before an existing family might start the next generation at school, the number of families served and impacted by the school, the number of miles a family may have to drive to get to school, and other factors.

Data about student enrollment at the beginning of this year in the rural schools was provided. Opal had 15 students; Hereford, 15; Elm Springs, 14; Atall, 11; Union Center and Enning, 48 — for a total of 103.

Several questions were asked about whether closures are a question of money, and a comment was made that the ag property tax collected, in the area of the rural schools, would be roughly estimated around $900,000, with the costs to operate the rural schools estimated roughly at $1.1 million.

At the November meeting, Bryce Richter, board member, asked Simmons to look into state statute pertaining to closing school attendance centers. The South Dakota Codified law statute is 13-23-1: “The deadline for closing schools or attendance center is December 1.

“Informing you of this begs the question, does this mean there is a plan to close attendance centers in the future? To which I will answer, let’s develop a plan first,” Simmons said.

“This has always been a topic, and we beat around the bush, and we don’t have a plan and we need one,” he added.

Speaking in favor of keeping the rural schools open included John Nachtigall, Joe Trask, Mick Trask, Cherise Lynn, Jessica Deering, Cindy Matt, Shannon Royer, Shelane Graham, Casey Spring, and Terry Berry.

“Closing our schools is a very tender subject with us because we have a very large area that we are trying to cover with the five schools that are in existence right now,” said John Nachitgall, from Elm Springs. “From my place to Union Center is about 40 miles, and if I have to travel that four times a day, it takes roughly an hour on the gravel roads, and that is four hours a day that takes away from my business and puts hardships on families.”

“I have been a Meade County resident all of my life, I grew up in Enning, and went to school in Enning K-8, I spent four years in Spearfish during college obtaining a double major in elementary and special education, and live in Elm Springs for the past 22 years” said Cherise Lynn, of Elm Springs. “This ongoing battle of school closure is a generational issue, and it is a battle. My folks fought it when I was a little kid, and now that I am a parent fighting the same battle.”

The agenda item was a discussion topic only, so after Simmons made his opening comments, residents were allowed to speak. After listening to the speakers, the board moved on to the next agenda item.

Other topics discussed by the board during the meeting included school safety, and John Walker, school resource officer (SRO), talked about the need and recommendation for a gun safe in the school.

Jodie VanDewater, Sturgis police chief, also spoke in favor of having a safe in the school.

“If we have a safe with a rifle, the officer would have immediate access, versus running out to their car and grabbing the rifle, and reentering the school,” he said.

Board President Charlie Wheeler asked if there was ammunition that would not penetrate a wall as a safety concern, and the officers stated there is, but that type of ammunition would like not stop someone with armor on. Board member Bob Burns made the motion and member Curtis Johnson, seconded, with the motion passing unanimously. Board members Bryce Richter and Courtney Mack were absent.

The School Board Policy on community use of school facilities was reviewed and amended to set rates for the use of school property at the Stagebarn Middle school: Gym $300, Commons $100, Media Room $100, Concession $25, and the Kitchen $100.

The agenda topic, Participation of Alternative Instruction Students, was discussed in detail. The new policy is an update due to the school switching from a block schedule to a traditional schedule of eight periods. The change that was approved allows resident alternative instruction students to participate in athletics or fine art activities provided they enroll in and attend classes that equal 25 percent enrollment one full academic credit. Non-resident alternative instruction students may be allowed to participate in athletics or fine art activities provided they enroll in classes that are equal to 50 percent enrollment of two full academic credits. Discussion centered on potentially increasing the percentages to 50-75 percent enrollment to encourage those students to become full-time Meade 46-1 students. The motion passed 6-1, with member Tracy Konst voting no.

Ron Adam, Meade County Fair Association president, reviewed the request for the school board to give consideration to a 99-year lease on approximately 20 acres of land next to the school for an event center, amphitheater, outdoor shooting sports area, picnic area, community garden, and outdoor livestock show area.

“We would like to re-negotiate the fair association lease with the school district as it is a necessary step,” said Adam. “We are outgrowing the area for the fair and we have plotted out a map that would meet the needs of the fair for the future.”

The fair board is raising funds for the building of the event center with over $100,000 raised so far. The Meade School District buildings and grounds committee will set up a meeting to discuss amending the existing lease on Thursday morning and will send any questions to the Fair Board committee.

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