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New Year, New Optimism

August 15, 2012, 10:08 PM by David Brown

New Year, New Optimism
SIOUX FALLS, SD -

The 2012-2013 school year is just around the corner in South Dakota. And every new year brings a new set of challenges.

But compared to last year, when drastic budget cuts forced schools to manage with fewer resources, this year holds an increasingly optimistic outlook.

As kids progress through middle school and high school, they start to learn more about state and local government. It's a lesson that was not only taught in the classroom in 2011, but felt in the classroom as well.

"Last year was probably, in all the years I've been in the Sioux Falls school district, one of the worst for budget," Lincoln High School principal Valerie Fox said. "It was not a good situation."

Fox vividly remembers the struggles of last year, working with booster clubs and other organizations to combat the state budget cuts. Fox admits the situation's a lot better this year, but it's not where it once was.

"The strength coaches that we were supposed to have were all cut," Fox said. "Intramurals were cut for both middle school and high school. Ten administrative positions were cut. None of them have been put back in place."

"For our district, that was about a $400,000 decrease in funding," Canton School District superintendent Terry Gerber said. "To put that in perspective, we spend just under $400,000 per year in our middle school on teacher salary."

Gerber says his district has been able to withstand the cuts. In fact, he says the staff came up with some ideas to help out.

"One of the things we did was an activity with our staff called, 'If Money Wasn't An Issue,'" Gerber said. "And we put that out during a teacher in-service: 'What things would you like to see done? What could we do?'"

As it turns out, Gerber said most of the ideas didn't really cost that much and the district was able to implement most of them.

"I think we just allowed teachers to teach and allow them to focus on the teaching and learning process. And we allowed myself and the business manager to focus on the funding issues. That's really been our strategy," Gerber said.

It's a strategy that helped morale around Canton. There was no way to avoid the issue, but keeping spirits up during the last school year was left to more than just the cheerleaders.

"Every single day, you're just here trying to do the best you can," Fox said. "And believe me, when you're in the halls, that's all you feel. You just feel great about what you're doing."

Fox says science and math books are still out of date at Lincoln. And teacher salaries are still down from where they were a couple of years ago. But with some creative maneuvering, the school's biggest concern has been avoided.

"All of us were able to maintain our teacher hirings," Fox said. "In fact, we added a couple of extra so we could maintain class sizes at a low level."

The challenges of balancing a budget, maintaining education standards and utilizing resources won't go away as school starts up again. But after a whole new type of education last year, it'll be a chance to go back to basics this time around.

"Every year is a start-over or a do-over," Gerber said. "And that includes with the budget, with the kids, and with everything else. So, there's optimism and hope for every new year."

"We still have some ground to make up, no doubt about it," Fox said. "But nobody needs to focus on the doom and gloom anymore."

Gerber says a state Senate Bill passed in 2009 allowed the Canton district to use one-time money to help offset some of the budget cuts. But he hopes the 2013 legislature can look at increasing the per-student amount as we move forward.

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