Gov. Dennis Daugaard named Don Kirkegaard as state education secretary last year to replace Melody Schopp but still needed the state Senate to approve him.

The first step came Thursday afternoon. The Senate Education Committee voted 6-1 to recommend Kirkegaard’s confirmation.

The final step could come Friday or Monday afternoon, when the 35 members of the Senate vote on it.

Tony Venhuizen, the governor’s chief of staff, sat at the side of the former school superintendent as the roll call proceeded at 4:30 p.m.

Sen. Alan Solano, R-Rapid City, asked the committee to recommend Kirkegaard’s approval.

“I certainly didn’t see you ducking any questions,” Solano told Kirkegaard. “I appreciate that transparency you had with us.”

Sen. Joshua Klumb, R-Mount Vernon, commended Kirkegaard for accepting what could be a one-year appointment because Daugaard is in his final year as governor.

“I wish you all the best,” Klumb told Kirkegaard.

Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission, said he appreciated Kirkegaard’s interest in working with tribal schools that Heinert said have been “ignored.”

Heinert said he didn’t realize until Kirkegaard recently visited the school system in St. Francis that tribal schools don’t receive state funding for data needs.

Heinert said Kirkegaard’s interest could be helpful.

“That potentially could save our tribal schools hundreds of thousands of dollars a year,” Heinert said.

The nay came from Sen. Phil Jensen, R-Rapid City.

Jensen explained right before the vote that he would be a no. He said he hadn’t received sufficient time to get answers to all of his questions.

Jensen was the second senator the panel’s chairman, Sen. Jim Bolin, R-Canton, called on Thursday morning.

Kirkegaard previously was superintendent for the Meade school district based in Sturgis and had been chairman for the state Board of Education Standards. He served 11 years on the board.

Kirkegaard, looking somewhat nervous, watched for a few minutes from the doorway before taking a seat in the center of the room prior to the hearing’s start Thursday morning.

The committee first worked through hearings on two appointees to the state Board of Education Standards and then started on Kirkegaard’s appointment.

The Legislature’s State-Tribal Relations Committee issued a statement in December opposing Kirkegaard’s confirmation as secretary because of ties to the GEAR UP program.

Kirkegaard confirmed Thursday morning he worked on several searches for school-district superintendents while in his previous position as superintendent for the Britton school district.

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Those contracts were with a recruiting service owned by Rick Melmer and Tom Oster.

Melmer was state education secretary and approved South Dakota’s application for the first GEAR UP grant.

Misappropriation of GEAR UP funds by officials in the Mid-Central Educational Cooperative began after Melmer and Oster were state education secretaries in the previous administration of Gov. Mike Rounds.

Melmer, however, served on the GEAR UP advisory board at Mid-Central as more than $1 million of money went missing in recent years.

GEAR UP is a federally funded program. Its purpose is to make students from lower-income households aware of education opportunities available after high school graduation.

In South Dakota, two rounds of GEAR UP funding flowed through the state Department of Education for a decade to Mid-Central.

Substantial amounts of money eventually found their way to several nonprofits that Mid-Central officials also oversaw from positions outside Mid-Central’s direct control. The nonprofits had access to Mid-Central’s bank account.

Venhuizen introduced Kirkegaard to the committee Thursday morning and noted Kirkegaard accepted the governor’s invitation at his personal and professional inconvenience because it came with one year left in Daugaard’s administration and part-way into the school year.

Kirkegaard told senators he received a call in late October from the governor’s office asking him to consider succeeding Schopp.

Kirkegaard read to the senators from a statement.

“It’s a steep learning curve, but I think I’m making progress,” he said. He described his “non-political” approach to education: “Do what’s best for kids.”

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Managing editor

Chris Huber is the managing editor at the Rapid City Journal.