- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, Feb. 15

School sentinels aren’t the solution

“In the aftermath of horror, hope springs eternal. That’s what we’re led to believe.

“Every time America is shattered by a mass shooting, urgent calls for more restrictive gun laws become part of the national discussion, fueled by public opinion.

“Then we wait for responsible political leadership to take hold. And then we wait some more.”

Those words led our Argus Leader editorial last October, following a horrific attack at a Las Vegas country music festival that killed 58 people and injured more than 500 others.

As predicted, we don’t need to change the message much, even as the nation comes to grips with Wednesday’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

An orphaned 19-year-old named Nikolas Cruz is believed to have used an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle to take the lives of 17 people and wound 14 others, sparking renewed debate about gun control and security.

The National Rifle Association, a powerful lobbying force that spent heavily on key Republican races in 2016, has fought against legislative attempts to reduce the flow of guns. But Congress should take a hard look at closing loopholes through universal backgrounds checks for criminal history and mental health concerns.

Another possible “next step” is a restriction on high-capacity magazines, which make it easier for a shooter to fire more rounds without pausing to reload.

In South Dakota, though, these measures are not the topic of discussion. Instead, Republican state legislators called Thursday for more school districts to train and employ armed sentinels to roam school hallways in the name of greater security.

This is not the first time our state leaders have had this type of response.

In 2013, a few months after the fatal shootings of 20 elementary school children in Newton, Conn., South Dakota became one of the first states to pass a “school sentinel” law in the interest of averting tragedy.

Mirroring a request from the NRA to fight fire with fire, the measure allowed school boards to provide teachers or other staff members with guns to deter outside threats and defend school premises in the event of a “violent attack.”

South Dakota is currently one of seven states with some version of a school sentinel law, with Gov. Dennis Daugaard signing the 2013 statute despite formal opposition from the state associations of teachers, school boards and administrators.

“Guns have no place in our schools, period,” then-National Education Association president Dennis Van Roekel said the year the law passed, citing a national poll in which only 22 percent of NEA members favored the concept of armed teachers or staff.

Two school districts - Northwestern Area and Tri-Valley - have attended training to implement the sentinel program. Senate Majority Leader Blake Curd would like to see that number rise, saying schools with an interest in the program should “get off their butts and get it done.”

Daugaard agreed that schools could consider the program but said he wasn’t sure if it would reduce fatalities in a school shooting situation.

“There were law enforcement officers present at the (Florida) school at the time,” Daugaard said. “So the presence of a sentinel may or may not have an impact on such an incident in South Dakota.”

The sentinel law requires teachers, staff members or other volunteers to receive at least 80 hours of training in firearms proficiency, use of force, legal issues, first aid and weapons retention and storage.

Critics point to possible confusion among police officers who show up at the school in the event of a shooting. Amid the emotionally charged and chaotic scene that typically unfolds, how are they to differentiate a school sentinel from the perpetrator?

Harrisburg superintendent Jim Holbeck has more real-life knowledge of these scenarios than most. In September of 2015, a student entered the office of principal Kevin Lien and shot him in the arm before being pursued and tackled by assistant principal Ryan Rollinger and subdued.

Holbeck, who helped coordinate the district’s response on a day in which no students were harmed, sees confusion between “good guy” and “bad guy” scenarios as a recipe for disaster.

“We had 70 armed responders come to our school that day,” he said in 2016. “There were a couple instances where people were in the halls and (police) ended up confronting them. I would hate to think that someone who is supposed to be carrying a gun gets confronted in a situation like that and something terrible happens. The chance for error is there.”

There are questions about whether the minimum training level of 80 hours is enough to prepare a layman for the type of emergency situations that could arise - or even if no incident occurs. Could their gun fall into the wrong hands on a normal school day and put lives at risk?

If there is a shooting scenario, would that person be able to properly identify a target and fire accurately, keeping innocents out of the fray? What happens if a student decides to show off a pellet gun or makes an idle threat and a sentinel overreacts?

“Any time you add more guns, the possibility of an accident increases,” said Holbeck, adding that insurance companies made it clear that they would not cover the Harrisburg district if it used sentinels because of liability concerns.

Beyond the procedural aspects of this discussion, of course, are philosophical ones. With a national debate raging over America’s gun culture and whether it must be controlled, what kind of statement does it make to kids that we need an arms race to defend the sanctity of our schools?

Many South Dakota high schools have resource officers on duty, as did the high school in Florida, and greater security protocol at building entrances is sound policy that should be enforced. State legislators are also right to point out that lockdown procedures should be thoroughly reviewed.

Parents need to know that when they send their children to school each morning, the security and well-being of those kids is paramount. Keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people is the best way to achieve that goal, not bringing more firepower into the fray.


Rapid City Journal, Feb. 18

County’s mining proposal needs to be rewritten

On Valentine’s Day, the Pennington County Commission voted on a shovel-ready ordinance that can only be described as a sweetheart deal for the mining industry and commissioners who’d rather not rule on projects in the Black Hills where passions run deep.

The proposed ordinance was put together by an eight-member committee that included three county government representatives, two industry representatives from the same company, and two with ties to South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, including the so-called citizens’ representative.

A large crowd packed commission chambers on Wednesday to weigh in on a proposal that many felt had little regard for the public’s right to be informed and heard on projects that could have substantial impacts on the Black Hills and those who live, work, play and enjoy one of the most beautiful areas in the nation.

They have good reasons to be concerned. The proposed ordinance insulates county commissioners from making decisions, severely limits those who can appeal a decision and makes permit renewals an administrative function with the power granted to the county’s planning director, an advisor to the committee that drafted the proposal.

As it is currently written, the ordinance basically denies the public a role in the process while paving the way for mining and gravel companies to get their permits.

Instead of requiring Pennington County commissioners to decide on issuing mining permits - which are all controversial in today’s environment - the proposal delegates the task to the Planning Commission, an unelected body whose members are appointed by county commissioners and are not well-known to the general public.

To further protect the elected officials and disenfranchise the public, only those who live within 500 feet of a proposed mining project can appeal the Planning Commission’s decision to the County Commission.

How many people live within 500 feet of a mining project in the Black Hills? It is conceivable those neighbors could be the state of South Dakota, which would never appeal, the National Forest Service, which won’t appeal as long as Donald Trump is president, and perhaps a private landowner or two. Also, how was it determined that only those who live within 500 feet of a project have legitimate concerns about potential detrimental effects of a project?

Mining projects can pollute the water supply and damage the environment in other ways that can hurt the livelihood of those in the tourism industry, which is the backbone of this area’s economy and what sets this area apart from the rest of South Dakota. Why can only those who own property that is less two football fields away from a project appeal the decision of an unelected body?

And, finally, the renewal of permits would be reduced to an administrative task, meaning the public likely would never be informed of that process.

Where does this ordinance leave the public? Excluded - even though arguably everyone has a stake in the future of the Black Hills, the ultimate gold mine for this area.

It’s also interesting but likely not coincidental that the proposal did not see the light of the day until the eve of a Feb. 27 deadline - set as the result of the expiration date of a moratorium on mining permits approved two years ago.

After hours of testimony Wednesday, the commission voted 2-2 on the ordinance. Commissioners Lloyd LaCroix and Deb Hadcock, also a member of the committee that drafted the proposal, voted to delegate their duties to others. Commissioners George Ferebee and Mark DiSanto opposed it. Commissioner Ron Buskerud, who once again attended the meeting via video conference from his second home in Arizona, was unable to vote due to technical difficulties with his internet service.

The commission now has precious few days to approve a new ordinance, which needs to be rewritten. Commissioners who can be held accountable by voters should make the decisions. More than a handful of parties should be able to appeal a decision. The permit-renewal process needs to be more rigorous and subject to public scrutiny.

The Black Hills are a treasured public resource. How it is developed shouldn’t be decided by appointees no one knows or in an office in the Pennington County Administrative Building. It needs to be a public process. It’s what we expect in a democracy.


Capital Journal, Pierre, Feb. 13

You get what you pay for

South Dakota is a state of modest means.

As obvious as that statement is, it bears repeating. We need to constantly remind ourselves that short of a tectonic shift in either the state or the U.S. economies, our humble home is going to remain near the bottom in state revenue collection rankings. We’re an agrarian state, always have been and likely always will be. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a pretty good thing. We’re a pretty level headed, pragmatic bunch. Though we might be a bit on the conservative side, we can still recognize when something is needed. At least we’ve been able to so far.

Our governors always announce with pride the fact that South Dakota has always been able to balance its budget while at the same time keeping tax rates among the lowest in the nation. If you think for one second that South Dakota taxes its citizens too much, feel to move anywhere else in the country.

Low taxes are a good thing. Indeed our tax structure is one of the state’s best tools for attracting new companies and growing the state economy, which grows the tax base. Low taxes also increase the spending power South Dakotans have versus people in surrounding states even though our wages tend to be a bit lower.

That being said, low taxes present our state with a few challenges. We struggle to pay for basic services such as road maintenance, for example. Our generally conservative outlook on spending also tends to trap our state’s leaders into failing to adequately pay for our state government’s most valuable resource - the people who work for us.

To be clear, the folks who work for us are hardworking, thoughtful individuals who chose public service not to make a ton of money but to do what they love, whether its monitoring deer populations for Game, Fish and Parks or crunching numbers for the Department of Revenue. Still, if your job doesn’t pay enough to feed or family or keep a roof over your head, it doesn’t matter how much you love it. And every time there’s a lean year, these folks’ pay often is the first item on the chopping block.

For two years now, our employees have gone without even an inflation-based raise. Now, some will argue that no employee should get a raise every year just for doing their job. That argument has merit when applied to raises beyond the rate of inflation. But you see, when pay doesn’t rise with inflation you’re actually getting a pay cut because your take home pay purchasing power drops by a few percentage points. Making ends meet then becomes that much more difficult.

South Dakota has always paid its employees below the national averages for the positions they hold. Again, we’re a state of modest means and we rely on quality of life, low taxes and a pretty stable retirement plan to attract people to work for us. But as the rate of pay in South Dakota falls further behind our neighbors, it’s becoming harder to hire the best people for the jobs we need doing. A good, high-profile example of this is the state’s struggle to hire and keep an administrator for the Human Services Center.

There are many more important positions in state government that have gone unfilled because quality applicants have been too hard to come by. This appears to be particularly true when it comes to the fields of accounting and auditing. Being short-handed affects the level of service we see from our government and could lead to bigger problems in the future.

We can only balance the state budget on the backs of state employees for so long before the quality of service degrades. If we continue to be unwilling to pay our employees what they’re worth, we’ll be deserving of the dysfunction we’ll face.

As tax receipts rise we should keep that in mind.

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