Lawmakers love ‘local control,’ until they want the power

February 17, 2023 11:51 am
(Illustration by Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)

(Illustration by Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)

If you want to get South Dakota lawmakers to talk in hushed, reverent tones, just say these two magic words: local control.

Legislators purport to love the fact that local citizens serve on their school boards to decide on budgeting, personnel and a thousand other decisions that go into the care and feeding of a school district.

Lawmakers love local control. That is, they love it until such time as they want to be the ones who are in control. Each legislative session is awash in education bills, many of which, if passed, chip away at the notion that local boards are in control of their schools.

On the Legislative Research Council website there’s a subject index for legislation. In the 2022 session, the list of education bill subject headings included “schools,” “school curriculum,” “school districts,” “students,” “teachers,” “state aid to education” and “boards of school districts.”

Granted, some bills appear under more than one subject heading. Still, for school boards that are supposed to be deciding their own destiny, that’s a lot of legislation aimed their way.

Happily, some bills designed to tell boards how their schools should be run don’t have a long shelf life. In the 2022 session, bills like these went down in defeat:

  • Requiring schools to display the state motto or state seal.
  • Requiring school boards to consult with law enforcement on the design of new school facilities.
  • Requiring a moment of silence at the beginning of the school day.
  • Protecting elementary and secondary students from political indoctrination.

Some bills, however, pass through the Legislature, despite their tendency to wrest control from school boards. The last session saw the passage of SB 46, a bill to protect fairness in women’s sports.

The bill assures that the only girls playing girls’ sports in South Dakota are identified as female on their birth certificates. This is the culmination of an almost decade-long legislative battle to do something, anything, about the South Dakota High School Activities Association transgender policy.

That policy put in place a process to determine if a student who identifies as a sex other than the one listed on the birth certificate could participate in activities. As an example, if a student born a boy but identifying as a girl wanted to play girls’ sports, the policy called for a series of investigations into the veracity of that claim before the student would ever be allowed to try out for the sport.

Lawmakers love local control. That is, they love it until such time as they want to be the ones who are in control.

It seems that a female track star in Connecticut lost a race to a girl who used to be a boy. Her anger at that defeat reached all the way to South Dakota, where SB 46 was endorsed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, despite the fact that all the activities association’s member schools endorsed the transgender policy.

An even greater blow to local control was struck in 2016 with the passage of a half-cent sales tax. The majority of money generated by the increase went to school districts to increase teacher pay and get South Dakota out of the basement in state teacher pay rankings (nevertheless, the state still ranks 50th in average teacher salary). In this case, the Legislature was the one in control, mandating that the new money for school districts be used for teacher pay and only teacher pay. Those school districts that failed to comply would see their share of the funds dry up.

Too often, the message from the Legislature to school boards is clear: We trust you to run your school districts the way you see fit, until such time as we have to step in and show you the error of your ways.

Running a school district is tough enough without the constant barrage of bills aimed at making districts better through legislative action rather than local decisions. School boards already have to wade through a sea of red tape for what amounts to a trickle of federal funding. It’s a safe bet that each legislative session also brings along at least one new idea about how best to change the state’s school funding formula.

Obviously no school district is perfect. However, if South Dakotans are going to continue to embrace the philosophy that local people are in control of their school boards, lawmakers should do them the courtesy of getting out of their way.




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Dana Hess
Dana Hess

Dana Hess spent more than 25 years in South Dakota journalism, editing newspapers in Redfield, Milbank and Pierre. He's retired and lives in Brookings, working occasionally as a freelance writer.