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September 15, 2011 10:03 PM

A Small District's Budget Battle

Forestburg, SD

School districts across KELOLAND have been forced to come up with creative ways to fund education.

With no increase for the past three years, and a cut of 6.6 percent across the board last year, that's proving to be a difficult task for many districts especially the smaller ones like Sanborn Central.

Buses are back in route, and kids are eagerly flocking into school. But, with a brand new school year comes brand new challenges for Sanborn Central.

"It’s been difficult," Sanborn Central Superintendent Linda Whitney said.

Difficult to say the least for Linda Whitney who is not only the district's Superintendent, but also High School Principal and school counselor.

The small district of 197 students has been struggling to keep programs and teachers. And a declining enrollment forced them to take more than the standard 6.6 percent cut at the state level.

"8.87 percent, we cut $195,000 out of our general fund budget," Whitney said.

Those cuts made the belt even tighter for a district that's already consolidated to one school, and has trimmed just about every where they can.

"We’ve wanted to maintain programs but with budget cuts the biggest expense we have in general fund is our salaries and benefits," Whitney said.

Several open positions haven't been filled, leaving teachers like David Steele stretched thin.

"It’s kind of like this popery of jobs and duties," Steele said.

Steele has been teaching at Sanborn Central for four years. He's now teaching both Middle School and High School Social Studies.

"There's a lot more responsibility, several more educators are doing more roles, extra curricular wise, I've taken on extra curricular duties as well," Steele said.

Some teachers even travel between districts, teaching in more than one. But, while the responsibilities for staff and teachers at Sanborn Central have increased, their pay has not.

"The real challenge I see is morale, not just in our school but moral across the state," Steele said.

"My staff has not gotten an increase in three years and I realize there are many others who haven't but we have to do something to turn around k-12 education for the future of our children," Whitney said.

The majority of noticeable cuts at Sanborn Central have come at the High School level, which concerns parents like Tracy Moody, who also teaches in the district.

"My first thought as a parent is it scares me that some of the upper classes might be cut," Moody said.

Many of the high school elective classes have either been eliminated or will only be offered every other year.

"Students really have to organize their schedules," Moody said.

With the district facing major budget cuts, they've had to get creative to keep classes; one of the ways they are doing that is by going online.

"We have a lot of kids who have to take online classes" Steele said.

The school offers around 50 different online courses. With a one-to-one ratio of technology in the High School, it's easy for the students to take the classes. But that kind of learning isn't for every student, especially at that age.

"Some kids just need to take a class in a classroom, with an instructor, unfortunately, not all kids are afford that opportunity because of the financial constraints put on school districts," Steele said.

Parents like Moody, while not opposed to online classes, agree.

"It’s not the same as having a teacher in the classroom," Moody said.

The school is also using distance learning, allowing Sanborn Central to share teachers and classes with surrounding schools. Like this advanced calculus class.

"We share teachers, we get accounting from Woonsocket, we get integrated math from Mt. Vernon, Science from Ethan, we teach AP Calculus from here, and advanced Chemistry and Zoology," Whitney said.

Whitney says the district is doing everything in their power to keep the school running and keep education at the highest level possible.

"The future is we'll continue to do what we can to make ends meet," Whitney said.

But, she says they are running out of options. And teachers are running out of patience.

"At some point for a lot of good teachers the question becomes, I love my profession, I love the kids, but can I do a better service for my family doing something outside of education," Steele said.

And that could take quality teachers out of already thinning classes.

The district is also saving money with eight professional development days. School will not be held those days, buses will not run and meals will not be served. But, students who need extra help will be encouraged to come in for one on one time with teachers.

As for funding, the community did pass an opt-out on the property tax freeze, but instead of raising property taxes money was shifted around from the district's capital outlay fund.

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