Pandemic means South Dakota K-12 schools to see more federal funds, possibly more state aid

Capitol News Bureau
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PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota’s public K-12 schools have faced expenses like never before during the COVID-19 crisis. Soon they’ll see revenue like never before, too.

South Dakota Education Secretary Tiffany Sanderson said Tuesday the 149 school districts will split $170 million more of federal emergency relief.

She told the state Board of Education Standards that Governor Kristi Noem has also recommended the Legislature give a 2.4% increase in state aid to the K-12 schools that will cost some $19 million. If the state formula is instead followed, the inflation increase would be 1.5%.

Sanderson said the governor also wants lawmakers to let the school districts keep $11 million previously budgeted for a rising enrollment that didn’t materialize during COVID-19.

“Session ended March 12, COVID hit March 13th, and everything — as we all know — went in many different directions,” she said.

Overall, fall 2020 enrollment was down slightly more than 100 students from where school districts were the year before, but only 25 of 149 districts were within 1% of the same numbers of students.

“It is not the time, not the year, to cut that from our K-12 schools,” Sanderson said about the $11 million.

Districts had to put educators’ contracts in place last spring when enrollments weren’t known, there were expenses for school meal programs, and substitute teachers have been in short supply in many places.

The state Department of Education last week sent a proposal to legislators suggesting 40% of the $11 million be distributed on a per-student basis of $30, and 60% be divided among districts that suffered unexpected declines in enrollment.

Sanderson said school districts have seen small classes at kindergarten and the lower elementary grades, while the number of home-schooled students rose, and declines occurred at some private schools and federal Bureau of Indian Education schools.

“A small group saw steady shifts. Everyone else saw really interesting shifts,” she said.

Phyllis Heineman of Sioux Falls, a state board member and a former legislator, asked where the students went.

Sanderson said schools expect a very large kindergarten enrollment next fall, and in areas where tribal or BIE schools rely upon remote learning, enrollments rose at public schools.

The December round of federal emergency relief for schools, through a program known as ESSER, was $170 million for South Dakota, compared to the first round of $41 million. The funds will be available to schools through December 2023, Sanderson said.

Sanderson said 90% of ESSER funds must be distributed according to a state low-income formula for school districts.

“It’s pretty daunting, isn’t it?” said the board’s chair, Jacqueline Sly of Rapid City, a retired teacher and a former legislator. “Because usually South Dakota, we’re just like getting by.”

Sly said decisions by school boards on when to spend the one-time dollars will be “challenging” and require everyone to be “really thoughtful.”

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