Friday, March 7, 2008

Is Consolidation the Right Path For South Dakota?

Our educational system spans the state, weaving the strong fabric we depend upon daily. Generations of South Dakotans have drawn their strength from this very fabric. Unfortunately, the current decline in enrollment due to a decrease in opportunities in rural communities, finds us on the road frequently traveled in Midwestern educational systems…the path of school consolidations.
I think we are only as strong as our smallest community, and the school that provides its support. What South Dakota needs is a proactive plan to reverse the current process. We don’t have to travel down the same road any longer. However, this change will take commitment to transform our thinking and the way we look at education, economic development, social interaction and our environment. Education is the key, and the connecting link to all we value in our lives. Education provides us, and our children, opportunities in life.
I have watched and listened for years the discussion regarding our rural schools and our true ‘state of the state’. As a mayor, I was burdened with the reality of smaller, rural schools around us declining and the economic opportunities fading. That is why four years ago the mayors of our region pulled together to figure out a different approach through a regional partnership. We need to understand our future requires us to realize that independence will only continue to push South Dakota into further unwanted consolidations, leaving fewer opportunities for the children in the small communities. The future of our richest resources: our educational system, our high quality of life, and our children is at risk.
I understand it is only natural to think consolidation, since so many indicators tell us to do so. Some may say consolidations only makes sense because we are sliding down a hill we cannot climb back up. I would propose we are looking at this situation through the wrong lens. Our decline in enrollment has followed a pattern…one of reactive planning. We have an economy that has moved from mass industry to technological innovation. We have fallen short in planning proactively and now stand at a crossroads; do we choose to follow the path of least resistance and consolidate or do we transform the way we think, and turn this entire thing around?
The current situation can be corrected through proper regional planning and collaboration. We now live in a global economy driven by technology. We need to slow down the consolidation train and no longer allow situations to dictate our fate. It is time we look at our current system and assess all of our resources. It is time we take some bold steps to outline a development plan for South Dakota and invest in our public school system, our university system and our trade schools. This is an investment in our people…and it will pay huge dividends.
We also need a plan for economic development, one that is truly committed to changing the stars for our children and grand children. We need a plan designed to properly equip South Dakotans with the competitive advantage in the global economy, a plan to encourage collaboration on a regional basis, a plan to pool resources together to provide not only efficiencies in our administrative systems of local and state government, but also open up new avenues for new goods and services much needed by the people of this state. We need a plan to rekindle the pioneering spirit that once made this state great and transform it into innovation and entrepreneurship. Finally we need a plan to chart the course for sustainable development, whereby we are not sacrificing our environment or our quality of life purely for economic gain. Please slow down the consolidations…that is the wrong path. If we are going to consolidate anything in education, let it be through the administrative and business management aspect of the school system, not in the access to quality teachers and academic programs vital to the education of our youth, the future of our state and our country.

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