Future uncertain for Oldham-Ramona-Rutland after voters reject new school

Published: Sep. 13, 2023 at 10:34 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) — It’s a growing trend of shrinking that continues for small rural communities across South Dakota — school districts needing to consolidate with nearby towns as populations dwindle.

Oldham-Ramona and Rutland is the newest of them — just over two months old — and top educators are now scrambling to figure out how can stay alive over the next five years.

It all revolves around a possible, nearly $30 million school for the new district that may never get built.

Two of the heaviest players in the debate are both long-time family farmers — one from Oldham and one from Ramona — who were around when there was contention over the merger of those two districts over three decades ago. And they feel very differently about the investment in local education.

In May of 2022, voters approved of a merger between Oldham-Ramona and Rutland school districts, combining for one district of 308 students, which would help raise the amount of money the state would give the district to pay teachers. In turn, the school’s new district superintendent, Dawn Hoeke, feels that would only enhance the quality of education students in the district would receive.

The consolidation officially took effect this past July 1.

Some top educators, including Hoeke and nine-year school board president Lance Hageman, were hoping voters on Tuesday would approve of an $18.8 million bond issue that would help pay for a new $29.8 million K-12 school for the new district. (The other $11 million coming from out-of-capital outlay certificates).

The school would be located at U.S. Highway 81 and 223rd St. — close to the geographic center of the three communities.

Instead, the bond issue failed, 305 to 277. That’s 28 votes out of 582. For the bond to go through, 60 percent of residents would have had to have voted “yes.” Just over 47 percent did, and only 57 percent of registered voters even cast ballots.

“I was disappointed and surprised,” Hoeke said of both the result and the turnout. “To me, it’s a no-brainer, as far as what route we should take when we’re talking about what’s best for the kids in this district.”

Currently, students are split into, well, where they were before — the two former districts’ K-12 schools in Ramona and Rutland. Both buildings are over 100 years old. A new facility would be safer, Hoeke said, and would’ve put students, teachers, and faculty under one roof, with all of the new technologies of 21st Century education at their fingertips.

“If your teachers can collaborate, they’re better teachers, and we all know the number one factor for students’ success are our teachers,” Hoeke said.

Another factor that drove the proposal for a new school was for students (and teachers and coaches) to have a centrally-located, one-stop-shop for classes and activities. For now, some students spend all day in one building, then drive 20 minutes to the other school for an after-school sport or activity. Then home.

“The transportation from place-to-place, where the kids aren’t getting home early enough, that takes out of their family time,” Hageman said.

The board still has until March to pass a bond issue or another funding strategy before their purchase agreement for the school’s proposed site becomes null and void. Hageman would not say if the school board will try to push for bond issue vote for the new school before then.

Had yesterday’s bond vote passed, that opt-out for the district would have lasted two years, but can now last up to five years.

If there is no new facility to build, the district would designate one of those two 100 year-old K-12 buildings as a K-5 and the other as a grade 6-12 facility, which Hageman said would be costly, considering both old buildings’ wirings would need to be updated.

But Hageman talked as if that would be mere patchwork, kicking the proverbial can down a dead-end road.

“The district itself, running the way it is, probably will not last more than five years with the funding that we have and the school buildings we have,” said Hageman.

The farmer grew up going to school in Ramona, attended Ramona High, and graduated a year before the merger of Oldham and Ramona in 1990. He then sent three kids through the Oldham-Ramona district.

“The next step, if nothing gets done, is to see how far we can go, and then dissolve, and that’s where the state comes in and draws lines on who goes where.”

If it was up to local farmer Leroy Erickson — an Oldham High graduate who, like Hageman, has lived on a multi-generational family farm in the area his whole life — the district can’t dissolve soon enough.

“Close it down,” Erickson told Dakota News Now in an exclusive interview on Wednesday. “Finish this year and close it down.”

Erickson said the bond issue’s burden on taxpayers is too high — $1.03 for every $1,000 of valuation. Large landowners like him would be hit the hardest.

“Why spend 30 million dollars when we don’t know if we’re going to be able to keep it open that long to pay the board off,” Erickson said. “That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Both Erickson and another local farming landowner, Bill Wettlauffer, recently bought advertising space in the local Madison newspaper, encouraging a “no” vote to district residents. The two also spoke multiple times at school board meetings, making their case that a new school would be too expensive and, as Wettlauffer said in a phone conversation to DNN, “would make no common sense.”

Hageman thinks those two men played a heavy role in persuading residents to vote against the bond issue. He also said Wetlauffer was inaccurate in his newspaper ad when he claimed that there would be “constant opt outs.” If the bond issue had passed, Hageman said, “we could have not used that the third year, or not used it at all going on, because the school should be running efficiently enough and under one roof to where we wouldn’t need it anymore.”

Hageman not only wishes more people would have spoken their points of view, but that both Erickson and Wettlaufer — whose land neighbors Hageman’s farm — would see things differently.

“Back in the day, when my grandpa was farming and I wasn’t alive, he was paying taxes for school kids,” Hageman said. “A dollar-three at this time of our lives, with what is going on right now, and the cost of everything, is not a big number.”

Hageman said a big misunderstanding about the impact of the new taxes — were a new high school to be built — is “not all valuations are the same. They’re completely different (as far as) if it is farm ground, or if it’s pasture ground, or if it’s slew ground. I mean, you could have a piece of land right next to each other that the valuation could drastically change. So, if you have a piece that’s not valuated as much, there won’t be quite as much taxes to pay.

“And most of our surrounding districts around us are paying more taxes than us,” Hageman said.

Erickson simply believes the taxes would be too high and would only get higher, all for a new school he doesn’t think would last anyway. He said that even though there are 300 students in the O-R-R district, only slightly more than half of them attend class in the physical buildings in Ramona and Rutland. The rest are either Hutterite colony students or open enrollment students.

A new school would be “foolish when we got 10 schools around us that could easily absorb those 150 kids,” Erickson said. This is why he wants to see the district dissolve.

“We should have done that 30 years ago with (the Oldham-Ramona merger),” Erickson said. “That was the big mistake we made then. I couldn’t see making the same mistake again.”

Erickson graduated from Oldham High School. When Oldham and Ramona merged in 1990, Erickson had a son at Oldham High, which closed before Erickson’s son’s senior year. Instead of attending that final year at the new consolidated Oldham-Ramona school in Ramona about 12 miles away, Erickson’s son went to Arlington, about 20 miles away.

“He’ll say yet today that he wish he had done all four years in Arlington,” Erickson said. “He learned more in one year up there than he ever did those other three years in (Ramona).”

When it comes to today’s landscape, both Erickson and Wettlauffer said there are several other districts in the area that aren’t much further away from Oldham, Ramona, or Rutland that students in the ORR district could attend — Volga, Madison, Brookings, DeSmet, Howard, Lake Preston, Chester, and Colman.

Especially Madison and Brookings.

“They got all kinds of other sports kids can be in,” Erickson said. “Now, Brookings is building a new school right now. They’re going to be in that school long before we even get started. Do you really think you’re going to drive 30 miles to come to (the new ORR school) when you’ve got a new school in Brookings, right in town? Doesn’t make sense.

“I’m all for education. Don’t get me wrong. I want the best education for all of our kids. But I don’t think you can do it when you don’t even have 10 kids in a class. It just isn’t there.”

(Hoeke texted to DNN that Oldham-Ramona-Rutland averages 11-20 kids per class. “Those are sizes per building — ORR as a whole has some classes that are 26+.”)

Hageman and Hoeke disagreed with Erickson’s assessment of the educational quality at ORR, calling it “excellent.”

“There’s just fewer kids,” Hageman said.

And that is the one thing Hageman and fellow farmers Erickson and Wettlaufer can agree — people have been and continue to move away from these small, rural communities. That’s because the main, and almost only, industry in and around them, is agriculture. Farms are getting bigger, meaning there are fewer farmers. The small family farm is becoming a thing of the past, and families who sell or lose farms need to move elsewhere for employment.

With fewer farming opportunities, there are fewer young farmers, and fewer children being born and living in these communities as time marches on.

Erickson and Wettlaufer said that the district should just cave to the inevitable and not throw taxpayer money at a school system that they feel will continue to lose students.

Hageman will keep fighting to keep it around. If the district dissolves?

“I would be very disappointed in myself for not getting this done for the kids and the employees,” Hageman said. “I would take a lot of that on my shoulders. For the community as a whole, I’d be very disappointed because it seems like schools keep people around and keep people going.”

Being a lifelong farmer, Hageman can see where Erickson and Wettlaufer are coming from. There’s just a fundamental difference on where he thinks investments should go.

“With me being here as long as I have, and growing up here — Back in the day, neighbors were neighbors, and it doesn’t seem like neighbors are neighbors anymore,” Hageman said.