Hill City held its first ever school board candidate forum on April 28 at Little White Church. The event was sponsored by the Chiesman Center for Democracy — Rapid City. Amidst the school district going through financial difficulties there have been seven Hill City residents come forward aiming to bring change of some kind.
There are some similar opinions in the group of seven but overall there were some varying opinions from one another.
Three seats are up for grabs this year and two of the candidates running are incumbents. Many of the questions about the forum were directed at Angie Ross and Dennis Krull who bring experience from being on the school board. Everyone had the opportunity to answer the questions from the audience or Rob Timm of the Chiesman Center for Democracy. Timm moderated over the forum.
He said it wasn’t a debate but an opportunity to meet the candidates and hear what they have to say.
Throughout the duration of the event Timm just had to jump in once to ask a community member to give their question.
With the budget shortfall on everybody’s mind, one of the questions asked was if they would support an opt-out to help with the school district’s financial situation.
An opt-out is when school districts agree to adjust the property tax percentages they collect. The state usually sets the percentage for property tax amount but the school district can set a higher mill levy if there is an appropriate purpose.
Ross said she would not support an opt-out as the property taxes are high enough.
“It will go to a vote and we are more of a retirement community anymore. I don’t think it would pass,” Ross said.
The majority of the Hill City population wouldn’t see the value in raising taxes and Ross said they see the school district as not going a good job at spending the money they already have.
Carmen Ronish said that it is a tough question without being on the board and seeing how money is being spent. Ronish said school board members are needed to be careful in dealing with spending the community’s money.
“We have to be efficient with our spending and not be wasteful,” Ronish said.
“You have to be a steward to the community.”
She said the school district needs a balanced budget and can’t overspend.
Krull said they will need to wait and see if they would need to have an opt-out.
“Before I go to the voters of this district what I want to be able to do is talk to each and every one of them and say that yes our district is running as efficiently as possible,” Krull said.
Krull said the budget cuts aren’t done. If the school district population keeps falling then the school board will have to make more cuts.
He said when they look at the data from 2016-2017, Hill City is spending $12,000 a student. Custer spends $8,000 a student.
An opt-out is something he would have to take a look at, Krull said.
Christina Larson, a parent of children in the district, said for budget issues she would want to sit down with staff members and some community members to see what kind of situation the school district has. She would like to take other people’s advice about an opt-out.
George Clinton, an area rancher, would be against an opt-out.
Clinton also said it is something they are going to have to look into and hopefully it will be the last resort.
He would like to look at if two principals are needed at the school district, if counselors are needed and if the food service program is needed.
George King, who works for the post office and for the school district part-time, said it won’t be business as usual next year at the school district. This includes figuring out how to cut down the cost-per-student. He didn’t say if he was in favor of an opt-out or not but said a lot of people he has talked to aren’t in favor of an opt-out.
Britt Daiss, a parent who works for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, said the problem lies in the exodus that is happening at the schools. According to Daiss, one of the things they need to address is why people are leaving.
“I can’t say that I would support an opt-out at this point,” Daiss said. “We need to make sure that our schools are as efficient and as budget-tight as possible. There is probably a lot of fat to be trimmed.”
She would like to stop the trend of students leaving the district and turn it around.
Another one of her key points is that there needs to be more communication with the community from the school board. In the last six months there has been a lack of clear and concise communication, Daiss said.
“That is one thing I would like to bring to the board,” she said.
King would like to instate monthly town hall type meetings outside of the normal school board meeting. He sees a lot of people around the community already.
The negativity that is in the community is minimal. He said people ask questions but they are more concerned about how they can help.
Ronish said she is not someone who candy coats things and is very straightforward.
She also expects the same from other people.
“I don’t want you to blow me hot air and fluff things up. Tell me how you feel,” Ronish said.
She said as a board there are tough decisions that have to be made but there also should be ideas that come from the people they affect.
She suggested that the board take ideas from the community individually and then make them best for the whole.
Another sore spot in the community is the decision to remove the industrial arts program from the school district.
Krull explained that was quite the process to decide to remove the shop program from the school district.
He said the entire budget was looked at and the recommendation came from the administration. Krull said the cuts came about from what affected the least amount of kids.
The budget system has a lot of moving parts. There still can be an option taken to save the shop program.
King said the shop program is one of the only programs that can fully fund itself. He has also heard that 75 percent of the contractors out there today do not have young people that can use a power tool, read a level or use a hammer.
“We have to get our kids ready, have a well-rounded school system and have an Industrial Arts program,” King said.
One of the questions from the audience was how important vocational education is to them. They wanted to know what the school is doing to prepare entry-level workers.
Krull said it is a tough question to answer because the high school is offering what the state mandates the school to have. After that they have A.P. classes and they are looking at supplementing education with Western Dakota Tech classes and dual enrollment with Black Hills State University.
Clinton said to be in line with biblical principles there needs to be a class that talks about life and civilization.
“Our morals in this country are going downhill,” Clinton said.
He blamed the high healthcare costs on the amount of abortions in the country. Unless we get more standards back into hearts and schools it is going to remain like what he has been seeing.
Clinton said they also need to have nursing and shop classes at some point.
“Right now we are going to have to sacrifice classes and other bodies to get ahead of the game,” Clinton said.
Clinton said that if he is elected to the school board he will find time to go to teacher’s classrooms.
“I’m not afraid to sit in a class and ask teachers what is it that we can do for these kids so you can teach them better for the future,” Clinton said.
Ross said there are very few schools that have pre-nursing classes and most vocational classes are extracurricular.
She said those are very important but at this point in a student’s education the focus should be on the core subjects.
To her, it’s important to focus on math, science and English and then try to teach about the extra subjects if there is time.
Daiss said getting students focused on basics is important but something that has not been discussed is the guidance that is needed for students.
“Identifying what students want to do with their lives and encouraging them to be the best that they can be,” Daiss said.
She would like the schools to identify students who aren’t being challenged all the way down to the elementary school level. A lot of students with other skills are not finding their niche yet and a large reason is that there isn’t a variety of options either in classes at Hill City, online or other places.
Carmen Ronish said within graduation requirements currently there are Career/Technical Education classes that students are required to take. These could be Industrial Arts classes, electronics or foreign language classes.
“In my opinion I think we should offer them here locally,” Ronish said.
Ronish would like to know that her daughter is in Hill City and not having to drive to Rapid City.
King is against outsourcing any of the students to Western Dakota Technical Institute.
“Even if it’s affordable and even if there was time,” King said.
King said that the classes at Western Dakota Tech teach students that they can just go somewhere else.
Daiss said it is unreasonable to ask the community to send their students to Rapid City and pay for that at the high school level.
“If they can afford it I think it’s a great option,” Daiss said.
She said the Industrial Arts class is one of the options that should just be left here in Hill City.
Karen McKee, Hill City Elementary School teacher, was going to retire and campaign to be on the school board. Change came that she wasn’t expecting and she decided to drop out of the race. Five teachers are not coming back to the elementary school next year. She said she couldn’t leave the K-1 system without having another teacher that has knowledge about how to manage it.
Her name will be on the ballot but there shouldn’t be anybody voting for her because she is continuing to teach in Hill City.