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Interstate trade: Minnesota school district will send some students to South Dakota for classes

Lake Benton Public School officials will hand their graduating seniors parchment diplomas for the last time ever this spring.

That’s because beginning next fall, secondary school students from the tiny southwestern Minnesota school district will cross state lines for their public school education.   

Come September, about 70 students in grades 7 to 12 will attend classes about 11 miles away in Elkton, S.D., rather than in Lake Benton, about 200 miles from the Twin Cities. And state education funding will follow them.

Three factors force 11-mile interstate ride
There are three major reasons for the decision:

• Their own district is plagued by dwindling enrollment. A decade or so ago, the district boasted about 320 students; this school year, there are 170.

• The current building that housed classes for junior and senior high students has been condemned by the fire marshal and is scheduled for demolition after the end of the school year. Retrofitting the building to comply with state fire codes and making it handicapped-accessible would cost $7 million — money local taxpayers said they couldn’t afford. The building comes down in June.

• Voters in Lake Benton School District 404 turned down a bond referendum that would have led to a tax increase and collaboration with the Ivanhoe School District to build a shared secondary school costing $15 million.

The vote occurred in fall 2005, when a tax increase would have figured to run $5 to $7 an acre at a time when farmers were getting only about $1.60 a bushel of corn, explained Darrell Busselman, Lake Benton School Board chairman.

“The economy was part of the issue. There was also some reluctance in voters to change,” Busselman said.

Last June, the state Department of Education stepped in to order the closing of the 1917 portion of Lake Benton’s one public school, the area that housed middle- and high-school students, because, among other hazards, there was no sprinkling system in the building, Busselman said.

Surprisingly, decision ends up being a money-maker

Interestingly, with students’ trek across the border, the Lake Benton district will end up making money on the deal, after paying the South Dakota educators tuition for each student, says Cornelius Smit, Lake Benton’s interim superintendent.

“We still get the same funding formula per student and we pay the South Dakota tuition rate,” Smit said. Turns out it’s cheaper to attend school in the sister state because salaries and such are less expensive, Smit said.

Local and state taxes deliver about $8,000 in education funding per secondary student, while tuition at the Elkton school is only $5,250 per student.

That means nearly $2,800 per pupil funding will be available to supplement the cost of providing a good Minnesota education to Lake Benton’s kindergarten through sixth-grade students. They’re housed in a section of the school constructed in 1957, which will undergo about $5 million in renovations.

Turns out they’re not the only Minnesotans to cross the border in answer to the school bell.

Browns Valley has had an agreement with Sisseton, S.D., for 30-some years, Smit said.

For folks living in many rural areas in Minnesota, the closing is a familiar story. “This has been an ongoing story for the last 25 years,” for these communities, Smit said, because of aging facilities, declining student enrollment and lack of funding. Some districts collaborate; others work out other arrangements.

The building closing was “very difficult to accept” for many in Lake Benton, especially high school students, including Busselman’s two daughters. “There was probably two months we couldn’t talk about it at home,” he said.

The last day of school is May 23, with that final graduation the next day. This weekend, there will be a community open house at the secondary building so folks can say farewell.

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