- Associated Press - Sunday, July 6, 2014

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - The narrow defeat of an attempt to reorganize the South Dakota High School Activities Association’s board of directors seemed like a new chapter in an old story: resistance from small schools to dominance by the state’s largest city.

“I think there is a belief or a worry by some of the small schools that they don’t want to be overrun,” said Tom Culver, the superintendent at Avon, whose high school has 56 students.

But in this case, the numbers don’t show that worry at work. Ballots obtained by the Argus Leader (http://argusne.ws/Tx4IWt ) show that the vote to change the activities association constitution and alter the makeup of the board, which needed 60 percent approval and failed by a handful of votes, received plenty of support from small schools.

Instead, large schools outside Sioux Falls formed the opposition to the move.

That’s partly because changing the voting parameters for choosing board members could bring “better representation” for smaller schools, Culver said.

“My main concern had nothing to do with Sioux Falls - on, off or indifferent,” said Dan Whalen, activities director at Pierre T.F. Riggs, which voted for the change. “It appeared to give better representation to our smaller schools, too.”

Riggs, with 611 students, was the largest school outside of Sioux Falls to vote for the reorganization. All the other schools in the Eastern South Dakota Conference - including Aberdeen Central, Huron, Watertown, Mitchell, Yankton and Brookings - voted no.

“If there’s benefits … it would be the biggest schools and the smallest schools,” said Mitchell activities director Geoff Gross. “The rest of us stuck in the middle would pretty much stay where we’re at.”

Among schools with fewer than 500 students, the reorganization cleared the 60 percent threshold. That included 55 percent among tiny schools with less than 100 students and 72 percent among schools with between 100 and 500 students. But most of the schools with more than 500 students voted no, with most large schools other than Sioux Falls’ high schools opposed.

The proposed change would have reserved one spot on the activities association board for Sioux Falls and Rapid City, the two largest districts in the state. The “large school,” or Division I, seat now includes candidates from schools such as Aberdeen Central, Watertown and Brandon Valley.

“We’d like to have a bigger voice in the activities association than we do,” said Doug Morrison, the president of the Sioux Falls School Board. “We have such a large population of kids in our district. We seem to be excluded, I guess, by virtue of the rules that are in place.”

But other schools weren’t comfortable with what they saw as reserving a seat for Sioux Falls. Tim Mitchell, the Rapid City Area Schools superintendent, said he liked “the current state where people were being elected at large … without guaranteeing seats.”

Mitchell noted that Rapid City has had plenty of success electing representatives to the activities association board. Even though his district would have had less competition under the new system, he wasn’t convinced Rapid City would benefit from the reorganization.

Gross said he thinks the rule change would lessen the representation of the Mitchell district and similar schools.

“If Sioux Falls gets representation through our present process, great,” Gross said. “We feel they would represent us well. I also don’t think we need to create special circumstances to adjust what is in place already.”

Sioux Falls hasn’t had a representative on the activities association board in almost 15 years, though it ran candidates in several races. Other large districts such as Aberdeen and Rapid City haven’t had any such difficulties winning seats.

The change in the reorganization also would have changed the board from three divisions to four smaller ones. That would have given some of the many small schools in the state a better chance of getting on the board.

“We just thought it was better representation for all involved,” said Lake Preston superintendent Tim Casper.

Whalen noted that the large number of small schools in South Dakota - a majority of the state’s high schools have fewer than 100 students - make competition for elected office difficult.

“If you’re a small school … there’s a lot of schools in that division,” Whalen said. “You may have a feeling that, ‘Boy, it’s really hard for us to get somebody on. …’ Sioux Falls would like to see even less competition to get onto the activities association board, and they’re dealing with a lot less competition to get on the board than the small schools are.”

The vote was about more than just size, however. Each of the 161 schools voting had their own reasons, some unique to them.

For example, Harrisburg superintendent Jim Holbeck liked the part of the amendment shifting from three divisions to four. But Harrisburg voted no because of opposition to another clause guaranteeing one at-large spot to West River schools.

“I don’t think we’ve been underrepresented from West River, when most of our schools aren’t from West River,” Holbeck said. “If they would run it separate instead of two different things in the same amendment, we would vote for Sioux Falls and Rapid to have a delegate on the board.”

Rapid City voted against the reorganization even though it had signed a petition to bring it up for a vote. Mitchell said his school wanted to have the discussion regardless of how it felt about the issue.

Wayne Carney, the activities association’s executive director, said some schools voted against the reorganization because they’re opposed to the association having a board with an even number of members. The board has had eight members for a decade.

Other schools picked sides but didn’t get their ballots in on time.

“If you go to their school board minutes you’ll note they did in fact vote, but for whatever reason the ballots weren’t sent in or were sent in late,” Carney said

For example, Oldham-Ramona’s May 12 school board minutes show the board approving its activities association ballot. But it wasn’t among the 161 schools to vote on time.

“We did not get that mailed off,” said Tom Ludens, Oldham-Ramona’s superintendent.

Ludens said Oldham-Ramona would have voted yes on the reorganization - potentially making the difference between victory and defeat.

The activities association ballot count showed 97 in favor and 65 against, which put the reorganization a single vote from the needed 60 percent threshold. An Argus Leader review of the ballots found 95 in favor and 66 against, needing four extra yes votes or two switched votes to pass.

Ludens said the closeness of the ballot didn’t make him especially remorseful for his district not turning in its ballot.

“That’s going to happen when you have, what, 180 schools?” Ludens said.

The activities association votes by mail: each school fills out a ballot, which has to be signed by the superintendent and the school board president, then mails it to the activities association in Pierre. To count, it has to be postmarked by the deadline, which was May 27.

That means activities association officials can’t be sure they’ve received all ballots until well after the deadline. This year, Bennett County’s ballot arrived a week late - delayed because the school wrote the wrong address for the activities association on the envelope. Because it had been postmarked on time, it still counted. Bennett County voted yes on the reorganization.

The experience with this year’s election has activities association officials seriously exploring a system of electronic voting.

“We’ll work through that, and hopefully we’ll have something in place by the next item we have an election,” Carney said. The next activities association election would be in spring 2015.

The association is exploring whether it needs to change its constitution to allow electronic voting. That constitution requires signatures on each ballot, but it’s unclear whether an electronic signature could count.

Still, while electronic voting might make the process faster and more efficient, it wouldn’t prevent human error.

“Let’s be honest: We’re dealing with adult professionals,” said Whalen, who is a member of the activities association board. “Somebody takes a vote, and then whoever is responsible … for getting those into the state activities association (doesn’t do it). Will that not happen if you try to do it electronically as well? I don’t know.”

Despite the recent defeat, supporters of reorganizing the activities association board plan to push for continued changes in the future.

“At first blush, we just need to go out and probably do a better job on our part of explaining it, breaking it down,” Carney said. “If we do that, I’m confident that we’ll run it again, although I can’t say that because that’s not my decision.”

Carney said he’ll explore different ways to word the amendment to satisfy various concerns - possibly splitting up the reorganization into smaller pieces, or adding a board member instead of changing one of the current seats.

Only that follow-up vote will tell whether the small schools who almost pushed this reorganization over the top will continue to support it.

“Sioux Falls is the driving force behind it,” Whalen said. “The question is, is it an issue for the rest of the state?”

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