Monday, October 20, 2014
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Neighboring school districts build in Sioux Falls
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Explorer Elementary is built within the Sioux Falls city limits but students who attend will be from the Harrisburg school district. State law allows a city to grow but school district boundaries cannot change. (MPR Photo/Cara Hetland)
As students prepare for the final days of school, several South Dakota school districts are looking to the future. The suburbs around Sioux Falls are enjoying a growth spurt and it's leading to some unusual arrangements. This fall the Harrisburg School District will open a new elementary school in the city of Sioux Falls. It's the first district to build a school in another town. Within ten years, officials predict as many as seven suburban school districts will put up school buildings within the city limits of Sioux Falls.

Sioux Falls, S.D. — Harrisburg is a small town about seven miles south of Sioux Falls. It used to be a bedroom community with old buildings and an abandoned Main Street. Now dirt movers and cement trucks make daily runs to Harrisburg. Superintendent Jim Hargens says there's a new building or home foundation dug every day.

"Approximately three years ago, we had a demographic study conducted of our district so we could get a grasp of student population, student numbers. At that time we had about nine or ten actual (housing) developments in existence," says Hargens. "But I'd say now, we've probably doubled that number."

Hargens says so far his district has registered 82 new students for next year. That growth will mean some new Harrisburg schools and the first one will open in Sioux Falls.

Forty years ago, every parcel of land in South Dakota was attached to a school district and it was the end of one- room country schools. Years later, there came another law. It said only cities can annex land not school districts. The lines drawn for a school district couldn't change. Because of that law small rural districts that surround Sioux Falls are booming. One reason for that, is that the city wants neighborhood schools for all these new suburban neighborhoods.

Sioux Falls' Assistant City Planner Jeff Schmitt, says many of the older schools, most in the central part of Sioux Falls, were built with education not recreation in mind.

"The building was there but what about at nights and weekends? Where were these kids supposed to recreate and where were these kids being taken by their parents?" questions Schmitt. "Now when you look at the whole park area, the open space area, the ball diamond that belongs to them, the play ground equipment and now we have community centers on them as well, it really becomes a neighborhood amenity and it becomes a community focal point for that subdivision that housing development."

Schools are now built large enough for four classrooms for each grade with lots of land for kids to play after school. Schmitt says as Sioux Falls grows and more neighborhoods are developed there will be a need for more elementary schools and all of them will be owned and operated by other school districts.

To the east of Sioux Falls is the Brandon-Valley School District. Sioux Falls will soon annex land and put in sewer and roads for new housing developments there. Superintendent George Gulson says the neighborhood school concept is hard to grasp because kids don't walk to school in his district. Most are bussed from rural areas. Gulson says they'll have to build more schools to accommodate the new neighborhoods.

"Most schools are really in trouble with declining enrollment so they have a lot of financial problems. We went up about $80 million in one year in tax evaluations. Most districts operate (in total) on that much. So on the capitol side we can do a lot of building," says Gulson. Harrisburg superintendent Jim Hargens says growth isn't always a blessing.

"The thing that bothers me, and it's not really that bothersome is the rapid growth we're seeing here in Harrisburg. With rapid growth and additional buildings and the way the state funding is set up, it really makes it difficult to keep up with the funding of all of this under the current state aid formula," says Hargens.

As the suburban districts grow, Sioux Falls' student enrollment will plateau and it may not be long before Sioux Falls and its suburban districts are the same size and have sports teams competing head to head in the same athletic conference.

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