(Editor's note: This is the final report in a four-part series reviewing information presented at a public meeting regarding a possible school consolidation between Oldham-Ramona and Rutland. Student enrollment, consolidation process and building needs are considered in other stories.)
A decision to consolidate the Oldham-Ramona and Rutland school districts would have personal impacts on staff and students alike.
Last Wednesday, a community meeting was held at the Dakota Prairie Playhouse in Madison where a consultant, Tom Oster from Dakota Education Consulting, explored the process for consolidating and showed how taxpayers would be impacted. He emphasized that voters will make the decision, not the districts' school boards.
How will students be impacted by a consolidation?
Programs currently available in one school or the other would in all likelihood continue to be offered, according to Oster. In addition, with the efficiencies seen by consolidating, the new district would be able to offer additional program opportunities.
Class sizes would also be larger. This would have both academic and social benefits, Oster indicated, citing research supporting this point.
"We all like small classes, but there is such a thing as too small," he said.
"All the employees of both districts would lose their jobs, and then they would reapply at the new Oldham-Ramona-Rutland," Oster said.
Currently, salaries and benefits comprise 85% of the school districts' budgets. With a consolidation, the district will need fewer teachers, but those rehired could receive more competitive wages.
"It's easy math. You have more kids. You have more money. You have fewer teachers than you do collectively and, therefore, you can pay more," Oster indicated.
Reducing staff would benefit students, he noted, reiterating an earlier point.
"There will be people that lose jobs if you do this, but your district will be more efficient and your kids will have new programming," Oster indicated.
When would construction on the new school be completed? Where would students meet until the new building is opened?
Kyle Raph, principal architect with CO-OP Architects of Sioux Falls, indicated construction would take 15 to 18 months. He suggested that should consolidation occur by July 2022, the possibility existed that the new building could be occupied by the fall of 2023.
"That can't happen until the consolidation is approved and a bond issue is passed," Oster explained.
He said the consolidation plan would include plans for meeting until the new building was ready for use. He emphasized that without the opt-outs, the districts would have to look at saving $630,000 annually, which would require combining classes prior to moving into the new building.
"They are going to have to do something from Day One," Oster indicated.
How would the school board be configured?
The consolidation plan developed by an appointed committee would determine this.
Oster indicated it's possible to have two members from each of the original districts with one member at large, but he noted this approach has caused contention in districts using it. Members are expected to show with their votes an allegiance to their communities rather than to consider what is in the best interests of the district as a whole.
"It creates a lot of hard feelings in the district," Oster said.
What kind of revenue would a consolidated district have to operate?
The current assessed value of land in the identified school district is $521 million. With a 3 mils tax levy for the general fund, the district could leverage $1,563,000. With student enrollment at 337, current combined enrollment, the maximum capital outlay revenue would be $1,146,000.
Is it likely that a change in the school funding formula will prevent a consolidated district from being financially sustainable?
Oster acknowledged this as a real concern since the Oldham-Ramona district has already been through one consolidation. However, he did not see it as likely, in part for geographical reasons.
"It gets to be too far out for school districts to consolidate," Oster said, indicating students would have to be bussed 20 or 25 miles.
He also noted that the school funding formula only changes about every 30 years and that past attempts to close schools with a population of fewer than 300 students were not successful. He projected the school could be viable even if student enrollment dropped to around 275.
"You would be very, very viable with the worst-case scenario," Oster indicated.
Do the districts have other options?
Oster presented two other options which are currently being used in South Dakota. The first would be to dissolve and attach.
"This is usually the last option for a school district," he said. Elsewhere in the state, when districts have delayed taking action as enrollment has declined, this has resulted by default.
The other option, a joint powers agreement, is only used in one district in the state and was chosen so South Central School District, more widely known as Bonesteel-Fairfax, wouldn't lose federal impact aid funding. The district contracts with the Burke School District to educate students in grades 6-12.