Opponents of mandatory school consolidation finally have an ally in state government.
Newly appointed Secretary of Education Tom Oster signaled a change in the Department of Education's philosophy on forced consolidation Monday, testifying in opposition to legislation that would increase the minimum school size to 195 students.
Oster asked lawmakers to defeat HB 1182, leveraging arguments against the perception that state-mandated consolidation saves money.
“Anyone suggesting consolidation saves money has not looked at the facts,” said Secretary Oster, reminding committee members that the state funds students, not school districts. “When you throw into the mix increased transportation costs, [consolidation is] not a saver.”
Oster told lawmakers that schools should be free to operate without state intervention if the district satisfies provisions of No Child Left Behind and offers coursework required by South Dakota's opportunity scholarship.
Secretary Oster's testimony marks a shift in the state department's philosophy under Dr. Rick Melmer, who served as state school chief since 2003.
Melmer advocated consolidation, often challenging school districts to realize efficiencies and improve academic course offerings. During his tenure as secretary, Melmer said the Legislature must force consolidation because many school districts, even when provided with incentives, would not decide to merge on their own.
On Monday, Secretary Oster countered that notion, telling lawmakers that consolidation is happening naturally due to “economic requirements.” According to the state department, 156 school districts will operate next year, down from 195 in 1980.
ASBSD joined in opposition to the legislation, telling lawmakers that school board members believe in voluntary reorganization.
Representatives of the South Dakota Coalition of Schools and School Administrators of South Dakota also asked lawmakers to defeat the bill.
Though the Department of Education will oppose efforts to increase the minimum districts size above 100, Secretary Oster is committed to ensuring the current law is enforced.
Before testifying in opposition to HB 1182, Oster stood against measures that sought to create exemptions or delay implementation of the law. He has also sought more authority to implement consolidation if schools falling below the minimum size fail to act.
Action on HB 1182 was delayed until Wednesday.