SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Gathering in beautiful classrooms and a state-of-the-art auditorium at the Community College of Sioux Falls, a group of state lawmakers, Board of Regent members, university presidents and other community leaders were trying to solve a problem they were ironically sitting inside. 

Thursday was the fourth meeting of the Senate Bill 55 higher education task force. Passed by state lawmakers in 2020, SB 55 called for the South Dakota Board of Regents to assemble a task force and study “operations and functions of the institutions of higher education under the board’s authority.”

One of those issues included how to best manage what’s now called USD Community College for Sioux Falls. Sen. Ryan Maher (R-Isabel), the prime sponsor of the 2020 SB 55 bill, told KELOLAND News the Board of Regents and community leaders need to find a way to make the campus “a profitable center.” 

Speaking from his role of a lawmaker, Sen. Maher emphasized state universities, technical colleges were not collaborating enough. 

“Everybody sits in their own institutions and nobody is talking to each other,” Maher said. “We’ve got to get them to come together and talk about what we can do to make this area better for all of higher education, whether it’s the tech schools or the university system.”

To start the day, Board of Regents Executive Director Dr. Brian Maher told the assembled group the day needed to be a “productive day.” Dr. Maher, no relation to Sen. Maher, said the task force is aiming to “help the system advance” and advocated for anyone who has been holding back sharing feedback to not hold back. 

“We want to provide the best quality higher education system we can have in the state of South Dakota,” Brian Maher said in his opening remarks. 

The former Sioux Falls School District Superintendent took his position with the Board of Regents in June 2020, shortly after SB 55’s orders were to take effect. 

“We are looking at saying we do X, Y and Z well. And we could do A, B and C more efficiently than we are,” Dr. Maher told KELOLAND News. “We’re trying to figure out what is X, Y and Z and what is A, B and C and putting that all together to make sense for South Dakota.” 

Senate Bill 55 higher education task force
Sept 2020: Task force members announced
Oct 2020: First meeting in Rapid City 
Nov. 2020: Second meeting in Vermillion 
April 2021: Third meeting in Spearfish
May 2021: Fourth meeting in Sioux Falls 
June 2021: Fifth meeting.
November 2021: Final report due.

The task force consists of four state lawmakers, three regent members, three university presidents as well as Native American leaders, one current student, a few current and former CEO’s and other business leaders. 

Sen. Maher said lawmakers continued to see tuition rates increase over the years and were looking for ways to keep the universities sustainable and competitive across the region. 

“I think we’ve all been pleasantly surprised at what is actually out there that we’ll come forward with our report,” Ryan Maher said. “I think the big thing is how the regents will move forward.”

Sen. Maher pointed to SB 134, which limits the required application of green building standards. Signed into law recently, Board of Regent members were already saying the bill helped save money on construction costs.

“It was just paperwork to justify paperwork,” Ryan Maher said about the Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes rating system. “It’s not a good use of taxpayer money.”

Sen. Maher also noted the SB 55 task force has helped guide possible changes to nursing education programs, offered by USD and SDSU, in western South Dakota. Those programs could be consolidated beneath one roof on the Black Hills State University-Rapid City campus.

“Had it not been for this committee, this group, that would’ve not changed,” Ryan Maher said. “This isn’t just a one-time snapshot. We need to be looking five years down the road.”

What’s the future hold for higher education?

When it comes to higher education, Brian Maher said everyone has different viewpoints on what it should be. He mentioned students look at higher education, wondering if it leads them to a better quality of life. 

From the standpoint of a lawmaker, he said legislators want to offer higher education opportunities to citizens at an affordable price, while keeping it as a quality product. 

“From my perspective it is, are we meeting the needs of the students? Are we meeting the needs of the state?” Maher said. “You have multiple pieces to that problem.” 

The SB 55 Academic Programs Subcommittee meets Thursday at the Community College of Sioux Falls.

Maher said a full report will be written after the fifth meeting in June. Copies of the report will be given to all the task force members to review and pass along agreements and disagreements before the final report will be finished in November. 

Maher said the implementation of ideas from the task force will be the “real work.” 

“If that were the end of the process, that’d be a shame,” Brian Maher said. “I think the findings from Senate Bill 55 will help drive a strategic plan for the Board of Regents for years to come. I think you’ll see the fruits of this labor for many, many years.” 

Here’s a look at the SB 55 Task Force members:

Sen. Ryan Maher (R-Isabel), Sen. Reynold Nesiba (D-Sioux Falls), Rep. Hugh Bartels (R-Watertown), Rep. Chris Karr (R-Sioux Falls), Regent Jim Thares, Regent Joan Wink, Regent Barb Stork, USD President Sheila Gestring, BHSU President Laurie Nichols, SDSU President Barry Dunn, Neiman Enterprises CEO Jim Neiman, southeast regional director for U.S. Sen Mike Rounds Tyler Tordsen, Monument Health CEO Paulette Davidson, Lakota Funds board chair Elsie Meeks, SDSU student Nadifa Mahamed, Agtegra Cooperative directors Hal Clemensen, former ELM Resources CEO Jon Veenis, former Tyson Foods COO Jim Lochner and Sioux Falls School District director of research, innovation, and accountability Doug Morrison.