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Geoff Preston / Geoff Preston Journal staff 

Nate Rotert of South Dakota State (right) and Clayton Wahlstrom of Augustana (left) go at during the Dakota Showcase Sunday at Spearfish High School.

Sutton agrees to release emails, but hasn't yet delivered

After he proposed legislation to expose government emails to public review, state senator and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Billie Sutton accepted a challenge from the Journal on Oct. 26 to release the emails from his legislative account.

But he has not yet delivered. His attempts to divulge his emails have been stalled, he has since said, by Legislative Research Council concerns about the potential release of confidential information.

The LRC maintains the email accounts of legislators and has given Sutton a list of 11 kinds of information that should be redacted before his emails are released.

“Ensuring these items are not included will require a manual review of the emails I provide to you, and LRC is not able to help with this process,” Sutton said in his most recent email correspondence with the Journal. “Therefore, I will need time to manually work through the emails reviewing them for any of the issues raised by the LRC.”

Sutton, of Burke, added that because of the time involved and the lack of help from the LRC, he will release only a couple of weeks’ worth of emails.

Mount Podmore 4: Billie Sutton

The Journal sprang the request on Sutton during an interview at the newspaper’s office for the Mount Podmore political podcast. The full 20-minute interview, which includes Sutton’s answers to questions on a range of topics including gun laws, abortion, capital punishment and transgender rights, was posted Monday to the Journal’s website and to iTunes and other podcast apps.

Sutton proposed legislation Oct. 5 to the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee that would, among other things, remove correspondence from the list of records that are exempted from transparency requirements. That change would open access to government emails, which are not currently considered open records in South Dakota.

When asked Oct. 26 if he would release emails from his legislative account to the Journal, Sutton answered with one word: “Sure.”

Earlier in the interview, he had explained the philosophy behind his proposed legislation.

“If you’re doing things correctly, you shouldn’t have to worry about your emails being public,” he said.

Since then, in email correspondence with the Journal, Sutton said the LRC advised him to redact the following from his emails before releasing them: personal information such as Social Security numbers, financial documents, executive session information, juvenile documents, personnel records, transcripts, student records, medical records, proprietary or trade secrets, Revolving Economic Development & Initiative meeting documents, and confidential disclosures.

The Journal contacted the other declared gubernatorial candidates — all Republicans — and also asked for their emails.

Marty Jackley, a Republican and the state’s current attorney general, said he supports legislation to make government emails public and would release his own existing emails, but only if the Journal could obtain a written waiver of confidential privilege from somebody who has exchanged emails with him. The Journal did not obtain such a waiver.

Justin Brasell, campaign spokesman for U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, issued the following statement.

“Kristi believes transparency in government is essential, and she understands many have concerns,” the statement said. “As this debate progresses, she’ll be listening closely to South Dakotans, narrowing in on the best, publicly debated reforms to make sure the state government is genuinely more accountable to the people.”

Gubernatorial candidates Terry LaFleur and Lora Hubbel each expressed support for making government emails public records and a willingness to make their own emails public if elected, but both added that because they are not currently in elected office or working in government jobs, they have no government emails to release.

Moving assistants help families deal with years of possessions

Leaving a lifetime family home is stressful enough. Add dealing with years, or even decades, of accumulated belongings, and it can downright debilitating.

A move to a smaller residence, especially with a need to let go of family heirlooms with strong emotional attachments, can be daunting, especially for seniors.

“The population is aging quickly, and it’s becoming more and more of an issue,’ said D’Lynn VanValkenburgh, who along with her husband, Jim, recently opened a local franchise devoted to helping people organize their belongings, pack for a move and resettle in a new home.

Both the VanValkenburgh’s Caring Transitions franchise, based in Rapid City, and Method Organization Co., owned and operated by Melanie and Spencer Brewer of Rapid City, will not just help with a move, they’ll also organize and downsize household items for estate sales, online auctions or donation.

“We do all the packing and unpacking and staging, putting pictures up and making sure the TV and computers are hooked up and working, making a new home feel like home,” Melanie Brewer said.

But the issue with many family heirlooms, especially china, glassware and antique furniture, is they aren’t as treasured by the new generations as in the past.

Items that were formerly passed from generation to generation in many families just aren’t in demand anymore.

“We live in a consumerist society where people buy what they want when they want,” Brewer said.

The era of instant consumer gratification means no need to wait for a parent or grandparent’s heirlooms to be passed down.

“Really, now people don’t have room for grandparent’s things or the sentimental attachment,” Brewer said.

Changes in the way people entertain have also altered the demand for china and silverware settings.

“Most of it is not dishwasher safe, and you can’t microwave it,” Brewer said said of fine china and glassware. “People aren’t having formal dinners at long dining tables anymore.”

VanValkenburgh said a level of sentimentality for family heirloom items still exists in the rural Midwest more than in other parts of the country.

Talking with other Caring Transitions franchisees, demand for antiques and other heirlooms is way down, she said.

“They really don’t want any of it. I see that here, but not as much as other parts of the country, at least not yet,” VanValkenburgh said.

Melanie and Spencer Brewer have owned and operated Method Organization, Inc., in Rapid City since 2011.

Earlier this year they expanded to the east side of the state, opening an office in Sioux Falls.

In addition to helping with downsizing, packing and unpacking, they also host estate sales on Fridays at their warehouse on Deadwood Avenue, along with selling items on eBay and other online auction sites.

VanValkenburgh will help sort and organize items and guide a decision on an estate sales or auction.

“Sometimes donation is a better financial option,” she said.

South Dakota parent groups widen school quality gap

SIOUX FALLS | The list of student perks at R.F. Pettigrew Elementary continues to grow. There's new playground equipment, a rock-climbing wall, water-bottle filling stations, not to mention an annual fun day where kids are treated to a recreational field trip.

It's all paid for by parents, not taxpayers.

"We're blessed at Pettigrew," said Marianne Mergen, co-president of Pettigrew's parent-teacher organization.

An Argus Leader review of parent-teacher organization finances found the groups pump tens of thousands of dollars into Sioux Falls schools each year, helping teachers pay for food, field trips, technology, curriculum, even classroom assistants.

The groups are run by parent volunteers who are committed to improving the quality of education at their kids' schools, but the boost they provide in the district disproportionately benefits schools in wealthier areas.

Pettigrew parents have raised and spent nearly $500,000 in the last five years, while other schools struggle to find volunteers for a single, year-end student event, the Argus Leader reported.

The potential for parent-teacher organizations to create financial disparities among schools is not a conversation that's reached Sioux Falls, but a pair of recent national reports raise concerns about unintended consequences.

Nationally, parent-teacher organizations account for a small but growing slice of school spending. A 2013 Indiana University study found the groups' spending nearly tripled since the mid-1990s and surpassed $425 million in 2010.

"While the millions of dollars parents raise is equivalent to less than 1 percent of total school spending, the concentration of these dollars in affluent schools results in considerable advantages for a small portion of already advantaged students," a report by the Center for American Progress concluded in April.

The nonpartisan policy institute's report, "Hidden Money: The Outsized Role of Parent Contributions in School Finance," said well-funded parent-teacher groups pay for field trips, new computers, art and music instructors, and supplies, while less affluent schools often have to pay for those things from their overall budgets.

In Sioux Falls, the number of parent-teacher groups has declined in the last five years. In 2013, 19 out of 22 elementary schools had a group. Today, there are 15. Most of the groups that have dissolved were lower-income schools such as Annie Sullivan.

Meanwhile, schools in wealthier areas are more likely to have a parent-teacher group that raises more than $10,000 per year for their school, and sometimes much more.

R.F. Pettigrew's consistently tops other elementary schools in parent fundraising. It also has one of the lowest rates of poverty in the city, with only 15 percent of students on free or reduced lunches.

The parent-teacher group supports the southwest Sioux Falls school with several annual events including the "Panther Dash" 5K and 10K fun run. This year, they're raising money for all classrooms to upgrade to flexible seating.

"We want them to have the best that they can have," Mergen said.

The Argus Leader reviewed five years of annual financial reports for parent-teacher organization at all 22 Sioux Falls elementary schools. Most groups at minimum provided meals for teachers during conferences. They also put on the science fair, book fairs, classroom parties and sometimes fund additional field trips or school speakers.

Big ticket items purchased by parent-teacher groups included playground equipment, teacher classroom grants (up to $10,000), artists-in-residence and classroom technology.

Parents at R.F. Pettigrew spent about $54,000 on new playground equipment in 2016, adding zip lines and tire swings.

Discovery Elementary School's parent-teacher group spent $7,000 on "classroom enrichment" in 2014.

The parent group for Sioux Falls' Spanish Immersion program, Parent Advocates for Spanish Immersion (PASI), spent more than $183,000 on the program, housed in Sonia Sotomayor Elementary, Edison Middle School and Lincoln High School. About $55,000 went to hire Spanish-speaking interns to support classroom learning.

John F. Kennedy Elementary dissolved its parent-teacher association in 2016, but the school still holds an annual fundraiser to bring in money for classroom parties, extra technology and T-shirts for the school's bullying prevention program.

"It provides a lot of extras that wouldn't be there otherwise," Principal Patty Vincent said.

It's easy to see the differences a strong parent group makes.

At Lowell, Principal Diane Kennedy is starting a small parent-teacher organization after four years of trying. Last spring, she recruited a couple of parents to help put on a party for outgoing fifth-graders. It's a small effort, but Kennedy hopes it will take off.

Before becoming principal, Kennedy taught at Harvey Dunn Elementary, a school whose parent-teacher association spent $16,300 on average for the last 5 years.

"They were raising money to buy guided reading books, or they're raising money to buy playground equipment, or they're raising money to enhance classroom things for teachers," Kennedy said. "Coming here, we didn't have that, so it required us to be a little more creative."

Lowell partners with local churches, which provide meals for teachers during parent-teacher conferences. It's not the catered meals she remembers as a teacher at Harvey Dunn, but it's a step up from a brown bag.

Parent organizations also help create a sense of community in school buildings, said Matt Johnson, PTA president at Susan B. Anthony Elementary. Johnson's vice president, Amy Gulbranson, recalled a few years prior when Longfellow and Mark Twain schools merged into the new Susan B. Anthony building.

"Teachers who came from Longfellow — they weren't used to us," Gulbranson said. "You don't have that sense of community (without a parent-teacher organization)."

There are many reasons why schools don't have parent groups.

In some cases, a group dissolves after the president leaves and no one is left to fill the role. Other times, schools are unable to find volunteers or a parent with the time to start a group.

"People have more money than time," said Holly Gergen, a parent at John F. Kennedy Elementary and former parent-teacher association member before it dissolved.

Discovery's group has been on the verge of canceling events because they can't find parents to help, said President Andrea Hawley. Even R.F. Pettigrew struggles to find parent volunteers to execute activities supported by its large budget.

"It's rare to see a family where both parents aren't working," Gergen said. "Your stay-at-home moms just aren't there anymore."

At Lowell, Kennedy had to educate parents as to what a parent-teacher organization is before she could get buy-in to start one. In her first year at the school, she handed out sheets at the beginning of the year asking parents if they wanted to join.

She received a stack of papers in response, but when she began to call and invite parents to the first meeting, she was met with some confusion.

"They're like, 'Oh is that what this is? I'm not interested' and hung up," she said. ''So I just don't think they know what it is and understand that they can have a voice in their kid's school and what that can look like."

Schools without parent-teacher organizations aren't completely on their own.

Sonia Sotomayor Elementary "adopted" Hayward Elementary School. It's a solution recently promoted by Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Brookings Institution and author of "Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It."

"By donating to your own school PTA you are likely exacerbating inequality. By sending half of this money to needier kids, you balance things out a little," Reeves wrote.

Businesses and churches also offer extra support and volunteer help to schools. School board member Todd Thoelke said Hegg Realtors, where he is an agent, helps Susan B. Anthony with its annual knowledge bowl fundraiser, and Eugene Field partners with a local church for conference meals.

Earlier this year, the Sioux Falls Storm raised money to "level the playing field" for schools without parent-teacher groups to orchestrate fundraisers.

Title 1 schools also get on average $5,000 per year to hold parent events.

At Lowell, parent Tuppence Cruz hopes their fledgling organization can someday match the kind of playground upgrades and other extras schools like Pettigrew provide. She dreams being able to raise $10,000 in a year, but for now is happy to have a group to vent about parking struggles and throw a party for fifth graders.

"We want to show that we're trying to help," Cruz said.

Couple take ashes back to England, 40 years after Rapid Valley murder

Forty years after a woman was murdered in Rapid Valley, a Rapid City couple has returned her cremated remains to her relatives in England.

Lena White Hat was murdered in 1977 at Rapid Valley. She was originally from England and apparently had no relatives in the United States, other than her American husband, who died in 1979.

Earlier this year, the Journal reported that White Hat's niece, Sharon Papen, of England, had recently begun trying to find out what happened to her aunt's remains. Papen learned — with help from several people in the Rapid City area — that White Hat had been cremated but nobody had claimed the ashes. The ashes had been kept all these years in a box inside a drawer with other unclaimed ashes at the Behrens-Wilson Funeral Home.

Papen said she lacked the money to fly the remains back to England, so Bob and Vikki French, of Rapid City, volunteered to deliver the ashes during one of their regular trips to England to visit Bob’s daughter.

Last month, the Frenches met Papen in an airport terminal and gave her the ashes.

Vikki French, the spiritual leader at Agape Spiritual Center of the Black Hills, called the occasion “reverential.”

“It was far more celebratory than I thought it was going to be,” French said in a Journal phone interview, “and I think that was because of the closure.”

Papen communicated with the Journal via Facebook messages. She said some family members plan to keep the ashes for a while but may eventually bury them near the graves of White Hat's relatives.

Papen wanted to thank all the people in the Rapid City area who were involved in keeping the ashes safe and helping her locate them and get them home.

“Without you wonderful people, this would not have happened due to my circumstances,” Papen wrote. “It’s not often you find such good people. You have helped me close this chapter in this book.”