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A school funding plan designed to keep schools open that serve large geographic areas but have small enrollments will be back in the 2005 legislative session, bill sponsor Sen. Eric Bogue, R-Faith, said.

"That will be my first and foremost goal," said Bogue, who pushed a sparsity proposal to the final minutes of the 2004 session but ultimately could not secure the votes needed to pass his plan.

Without the extra money, some schools would have to close, and vast swaths of South Dakota would be devoid of schools and closed to families, Bogue argues.

Bogue said he has secured support from Gov. Mike Rounds.

The Rounds administration has bigger plans when it comes to school funding, but any details are under wraps for now, Rounds' press secretary, Mark Johnston, said.

"Certainly, sparsity is one aspect of a comprehensive look at education funding during this 2005 session," Johnston said. "We and lots of people throughout South Dakota have been working on a comprehensive plan, called the 2010 Education Initiative. It's a set of goals, objectives and subsequent action plans to develop an education system which will provide the nation's most highly prepared and educated population ready to contribute to a competitive state economy."

Little information is available about the 2010 Education Initiative on either the governor's Web site or the state Department of Education site.

"The specific goals will be identified by stakeholders during the summer and fall of 2004 and revealed during the winter," reads the paragraph on the governor's Web site devoted to the 2010 Education Initiative.

Meetings on the initiative have covered K-12 schools, vocational-technical schools and the regental system that oversees the state's six publicly funded universities.

South Dakota's K-12 funding formula was rewritten in 1995. It guarantees a certain amount of funding for each student. The state compensates for whatever isn't funded through local property taxes.

When asked if the 2010 plan would come in the form of legislation introduced by the governor, Johnston answered, "It's certainly possible."

For the past several months, the governor and his cabinet have been putting together the budget for fiscal year 2006, which starts July 1, 2005.

"Until the legislators get here, it would be purely speculative," he said. "I'm not prepared to discuss any of the governor's legislative agenda."

Lawmakers elected and re-elected on Nov. 2 will gather at the state Capitol for Rounds' budget address on Tuesday, Dec. 7.

Rounds' plans are not widely known among lawmakers. Bogue, the Senate majority leader, said he has gotten vague assurances of support for sparsity funding, but the governor and his staff haven't discussed any details about what they are planning.

Senate Education Committee chairman Ed Olson, R-Mitchell, said he isn't aware of Rounds' plans regarding education funding.

But Olson said there is support for a sparsity factor within the state's school funding formula.

"I endorse the concept of a sparsity factor. We really do need to address it," Olson said.

Olson said there are other factors that need updating in the existing K-12 funding formula, including a small-school factor that boosts per-student funding by as much as 20 percent in schools with 600 or fewer students. And he said the category known as "other revenue," which includes a grab bag of revenue such as port-of-entry fees, bank franchise fees and utility taxes, is in need of reform.

Rep. Mike Buckingham, R-Rapid City, said he is determined to restructure "other revenue," a situation lawmakers decided in 1995 they could not address when they rewrote the funding formula. The "other revenue" is distributed unevenly across districts and does not count toward the per-student guarantee of the formula. Therefore, some schools receive a bonus in "other revenue," and some don't receive anything from that category.

"It's a huge chunk of money, and it's getting worse. It's becoming a big part of funding that large schools don't get to look at," Buckingham, a former member of the Rapid City school board, said. "All the money that goes to schools should be treated the same."

Statewide, he said, "other revenue" exceeds $40 million. Olson said enough districts get the "other revenue" that a political "bloodbath" could result in trying to redirect it.

Buckingham supports a sparsity factor, saying no amount of numbers crunching will compensate for the costs in such districts.

"By geography, you have an expense they cannot control," Buckingham said.

Rep. Maury LaRue, R-Sturgis, said it is time to rewrite the school funding formula.

"You can patch the old formula just so many times before it creates its own inequities," LaRue, a retired teacher, said.

Whatever plan Rounds unveils, it will compete with a proposal from the schools themselves. School lobbyists have been briefing lawmakers on their request for a guaranteed 3 percent year-to-year budget increase plus a sparsity factor.

Given the complexities of education funding, lawmakers expect the governor's plan to prevail over other plans.

"If it doesn't come from Governor's Office, it just isn't going to fly," Buckingham said.

Contact Denise Ross at 394-8438 or denise.ross@rapidcityjournal.com

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