BROOKINGS – Thursday night’s Brookings School Board candidate forum was a chance for the public to hear firsthand how the three candidates for the two open school board seats view and would address a variety of issues impacting the school district.
Running for a three-year term on the school board are incumbent Randy Grimsley, Roger DeGroot and Deb DeBates.
The topics of the one-hour forum ranged from the proposed opt out, school safety and security and giving teachers a greater voice in school and district decisions.
The opt out was one of the biggest issues at the forum, coming up in several questions.
All three candidates agreed on the need for an opt out, saying there’s little room for cuts to be made to balance the school district’s budget.
Grimsley said administrative staff is already bare bones, and nobody likes cutting staff.
Positions like librarians have been cut back to make due, he said. “The feedback is we don’t want to cut that, but that’s what we’re doing to try to live within the means.”
When the board considered the multiple levels of opt out to put before the voters, they settled on the option that addressed classroom sizes and added different positions “that would help us out as a district, no matter what school you’re in,” he said.
In a question that pushed the candidates on how much money was actually needed compared to what the district is asking for, Grimsley took issue with the opt out being characterized as $5.1 million, pointing out that that number factors in inflation. The full requested $5.1 million per year wouldn’t be drawn immediately.
“Until we need to use that amount, the opt out is actually for $3-plus million, but we put the inflation in there knowing that in 10 years, $3 million would not be the same amount. … It’s just a bit of a misnomer to think that it’s going to be $5.1 million on your first tax paycheck that you have to write in. It’s not; it will be significantly less for the first few years,” he said.
The numbers do mean that an opt out of some sort is necessary, DeGroot said. “Really what we are doing right now is overspending our budget between $650,000-$700,000. … There isn’t much room to make any cuts in this budget.”
DeGroot did, however, take issue with the process that the school board has taken in pursuing the opt out. He pointed out that this would be the second largest opt out in the state – first place goes to Sioux Falls, which has a $10 million opt out in place.
“We went over about a six-week period from not needing an opt out to voting in a $5.1 million opt out, and that bothers me just a little bit. That process was a little bit rushed,” DeGroot said.
When one considers that between that and the existing $750,000 opt out the district could be drawing nearly $6 million in opt out money, “it just seems a little bit excessive and I think maybe a little bit rushed as it was put together,” he said.
For DeBates, it was important to have resources available to the district in order to maintain the district’s standing in the state.
While it is natural to look to be efficient in spending and cut costs, “I don’t want to do that at the expense of students and teachers,” especially when “our administrators are stretched thin” dealing with issues like violence and behavioral issues.
She appreciated the fact that the school district is asking for a 10-year opt out, as she knows of other districts that instead have two-year opt outs.
“Nothing is worse than trying to go back to the voters every two years to try to get more money to fund your schools,” DeBates said.
With school safety a national concern, the candidates were asked about their plans for ensuring student safety at Brookings schools.
DeBates said there must be a focus on addressing mental health from an early age. This means working with counselors to help students with emotional and behavioral issues. She also suggested possibly forming partnerships with local entities, citing the example of the Rapid City School District, which has started working with a mental health system there.
Schools have hardened in the years since the Columbine shootings, DeGroot said, and the same is true at Brookings. During his time as superintendent, films were put on school entry doors so that people coming in couldn’t see inside but people inside could see outside, among other measures.
The school board has made school safety such a focus, Grimsley said, that they’ve made it one of the superintendent’s explicitly listed duties.
“The board has made it a measurable goal for the school superintendent, so he has to report back to us on safety. … Now it’s part of his job description as far as how we deem he’s doing his job,” Grimsley said.
And he pointed to the Monday school board meeting, where the police chief and school resource officers will be presenting on the topic of school safety.
It’s a start, he said, but more will be needed with a survey finding that as many as 22 percent of Brookings High School ninth-graders have contemplated suicide at one point.
The City of Brookings announced Friday that the forum would not be rebroadcast on the city television channel as planned.
“Due to technical difficulties, there were lapses in the recording of the School Board and City Council Member Candidate Forum on Thursday, March 8,” a press release from the city says. “We apologize for any inconvenience.”
Those with questions can contact the City Clerk’s Office at 692-6281.
Contact Eric Sandbulte at [email protected]
Register photo: Brookings School Board candidates Roger DeGroot, left, and Randy Grimsley, right, listen as Deb DeBates answers a question at Thursday night’s school board candidate forum.