SD Supreme Court Denies Funding Increase as Schools Wrangle Budget Cuts

Published September 8, 2011

The South Dakota Supreme Court ruled against a lawsuit seeking increased state education spending as school districts cut programs and move to four-day school in an effort to manage significant budget reductions.

Two-thirds of the state’s school districts supported the suit, which argued state education funding was inadequate to provide students a quality education.

But with student test results in the state stable over the past few years, including ACT scores consistently above the national average, the court found no reason to increase funding during tight economic times, deferring to the legislature to make budget decisions.

“The appropriate place to determine school funding is the Legislature, not the courts,” Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) said. “I believe we should focus on student achievement, not spending, as the best measure of educational success. That approach is very consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision.”

Instead of the usual annual 3 percent funding increase, South Dakota’s legislature cut education aid 6.6 percent this spring to offset rising costs in other state programs, including Medicaid.

Cutting School Days, Sports
Many schools have responded by cutting athletic programs; at least 11 of South Dakota’s 152 school districts eliminated varsity sports, while others cut 164 coaching positions as well as travel games.

And one-fourth of the state’s students will now attend school one day fewer each week.

The four-day school week, omitting Fridays, meets the state Department of Education’s required number of school instructional hours by shortening lunch periods and lengthening the remaining school days.

Four-day school first gained popularity during the 1970s energy crisis, when petroleum shortages and embargos caused soaring fuel prices. Fewer school days meant less busing and decreased spending on drivers, janitors, and other maintenance staff.

‘A More Efficient System’
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, districts in 21 states currently function on a four-day week.

“It would allow for a more efficient system, especially for the small rural districts,” said Ron Williamson, president of the Great Plains Public Policy Institute in South Dakota.

The Custer district has employed a four-day week since 1995 and is considered the pioneer program of its kind in South Dakota.

“We’re a large, spread-out district and we have a state park that splits our district,” said Scott Lepke, Custer’s superintendent. “The four-day week does allow us to use funds more efficiently.”

Custer residents and teachers largely supported the change when surveyed beforehand. Because teachers provide the same amount of instructional time, salaries did not decrease, but the cost of substitute teachers, maintenance staff, and transportation fell.

Advantages for Rural Schools
“On Fridays, if there are students that are struggling with homework, the staff members are here, and those kids can get one-on-one instruction,” Lepke said. “We have not seen a decline in our [test] scores.”

South Dakota DOE Secretary Melody Schopp worked in a four-day week school earlier in her career.

“The school was 150 miles from the nearest mall, 25 miles from the nearest school district, and there were extensive trips for sports,” Schopp said. “Half the kids and coaches were leaving at noon on a Friday. The purpose wasn’t always saving money, but also focusing on professional development and additional time for students.”

Schopp’s school moved to a four-day week just a few years after Custer.

“We did see, in the first year, dramatic drops in substitute teachers and unexpected savings,” Schopp said. “There were also significant drops in absenteeism for students and teachers.”

Problems for Two-Income Families
There are currently 68,566 South Dakotan working mothers with children under age 18. South Dakota has nation’s the largest proportion of working moms. Four-day school weeks could force families to use childcare to cover the extra day.

“It doesn’t work for every district,” Schopp said. “It has to be based on the community needs. Does it work in downtown Sioux Falls, our largest district, with South Dakota having the highest number of working mothers? I don’t think so.”

As SD schools continue to fight budget cuts, the four-day school week may spread across the state and lead other parts of the country to consider the option.

Image of a school bus in South Dakota by Lars Ploughmann.