education

Schools — to merge or not to merge?

Oldham-Ramona and Rutland School Districts look at consolidation

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Consolidation. Two school districts, Oldham-Ramona and Rutland, have held three community meetings in person and online this last weekend. They are looking at the possibility of consolidating the two districts. Both districts spend an estimated $2 million in operational costs for a total of four million dollars a year. Consolidating the districts, would reduce the combined operational costs from $4 million to $3 million a year.

Looking at it from a financial viewpoint, it makes sense. Even adding the construction of a new school campus, which could add an additional $600,000 per year to cover the costs for construction bonds. The savings make it hard to argue against it, especially when the money saved is taxpayers’ money.

A new campus brings energy efficient construction and heating and cooling equipment. Maintenance is reduced, along with reduced utility costs.

THE PROS

Without a doubt, there is financial savings that come with consolidation. Combining two school districts can alleviate one school superintendent, one business manager, a principal or two, one from high school and the other from elementary. The classrooms that held just 10-12 students would almost double, needs for teachers would decrease because the students per class increased. Less classes would be less consumption of utilities. Buying in larger quantities usually means cost savings whether its toilet paper, textbooks or food for the cafeteria meals.

The State of South Dakota’s Department of Education figures an average classroom size of 25 students, and their financial help is factored at that number. If a district runs a class under that number, the financial burden becomes more challenging.

If a new energy-efficient facility were built, utilities would decrease, adding to the savings.

Sport teams would be practicing on one campus. Practices would start and end earlier because team members would not have to travel to and from different campuses.

A bigger campus would mean larger classes, and perhaps, more friendships made with the students. Bigger sports teams, clubs, organizations and activities would mean a student has more choices or options available through their years of education.

THE CONS

One of the hardest obstacles to overcome in a consolidation and building a new facility would be the loss each town has of school pride. For a hundred years or more, each community has been attending the school sports games, supporting the local school. The resident may have graduated from there, as did their parents. The schools have been a big part of the communities for a long time.

Building a new school between the districts is great for the students, and in this case, the taxpayers, too, but there becomes a hole in that community where that local school was once active.

What does a town do with the now-empty buildings and facilities? They will be hard to sell or repurpose; building materials used in the construction of the original school or additions could make it costly to abate those dangers if they are present.

When a school has been a part of the community for so long, swallowing one’s civic pride and throwing support to a new campus that the parents never attended will be a hard sell.

THE PROPOSED LOCATIONS

The proposed campus sites are both along Highway 81. One is situated at 223rd Street and would place the facilities on the northwest corner of that intersection. Another possible location is at 225th Street on the northeast corner. There may be other sites to evaluate, but at present these are the two options.

Driving from Oldham is roughly fifteen miles to either location, and the drive for Rutland is around twelve miles. Having the location along Highway 81 makes sense since the SD Department of Transportation will oversee the main road in front of the new campus. State guidelines will mandate and control the speed limits along that stretch of the highway, school zone speeds, width of the roads and turning lanes. In winter, the state will be removing the snow from the highway, allowing better access.

OTHER THOUGHTS

Tom Oster with Dakota Education Consulting had been tasked with developing the consolidation plan, finding potential campus sites and presenting the plan to the boards and the public at the weekend meetings.

Oldham-Ramona has about 145 students with approximately 25 students open enrolled. Rutland has about 190 students with an estimated 85 students open enrolled. Most of the students who open enroll are from Madison or Brookings. Each school district is responsible for education at a Hutterite Colony, which must be factored into the plan as well.

The state of South Dakota has 149 school districts. Oldham-Ramona is ranked 135th in size. It is just fifteen slots away from the smallest school district. Rutland is ranked 129th. Combining the two schools would jump their status around the 84th spot.

The meetings this last weekend were used to evaluate the desire of the communities for the consolidation. If both school boards feel the merger would be beneficial, the Department of Education will look over the plans, make any state recommendations and allow an election to take place. The election could occur by January or February in 2022.

The school districts of Oldham and Ramona consolidated in 1990. Attempts to consolidate Oldham-Ramona and Rutland have occurred in the past. Whether it occurs this time is hard to say. Chances are if no consolidation occurs, it will continue to crop up time and time again.

There is no doubt the decision about consolidation will be filled with emotions. In the words of Oldham-Ramona’s Superintendent Mike Fischer, “The kids are the easy part in all these plans. Let’s do what is best for both districts.”

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