District 28 Senate candidate Rep. Betty Olson (R-Prairie City) earned herself some media attention this week. It seems only fair that we give her opponent in the Senate race, Parade Democrat Oren Lesmeister, a little air time.

Hat, cattle, and mustache—Oren Lesmeister, Democratic candidate for District 28 Senate

Hat, cattle, and mustache—Oren Lesmeister, Democratic candidate for District 28 Senate

Lesmeister runs Fox Ridge Ag Supply in Parade, Dewey County, on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation east of Eagle Butte. He also raises wheat, sunflowers, corn and cattle on his patch of the high plains. He spoke to me Thursday from a motel room in Belle Fourche, about 150 miles from home. District 28 covers more territory than any other legislative district in the state: all of Dewey, Ziebach, Corson, Perkins, and Harding counties, most of Butte, and the northeast corner of Meade—14,700 square miles, almost a fifth of South Dakota, with about 3% of the state's population. He drove 235 miles just the preceding evening

That's sparse country to be out rustling up votes, but Lesmeister says campaigning is an "absolute blast," even for a Democrat campaigning in what Betty Olson's representation makes clear is hard right Republican country. Lesmeister reminds us that he comes from the eastern, reservation side of District 28, which leans Democrat. But even on the western side, where he says he gets skunk eye over that D in front of his name "every day," Lesmeister says he has great conversations with very "receptive" voters.

What do they talk about? Education funding comes up. Lesmeister says his school district, Eagle Butte, comes out better than others, since it receives a fair amount of impact aid from the federal government to make up for tribal land that doesn't pay property tax. But he looks around at the sprawling, far-flung school districts of District 28 and sees the state's "broken" funding formula failing to meet their needs. Lesmeister says we need more money for schools, but he's not proposing new taxes. He first wants to look at the hundreds of millions in sales tax exemptions as well as economic development handouts to corporations as sources of revenue to bolster our schools.

Lesmeister does talk taxes with his neighbors, particularly the agriculture productivity tax. In 2008, South Dakota revised its property tax to assess ag land not on the basis of land sale and rental values but an Olympic average (eight years, drop high and low) of crop prices and yields for comparable land. Lesmeister says that taxing ag land based on the corn or hay it could have produced according to past averages of neighbors' activity is like taxing a 40-story building for 200-stories: you could have built a taller skyscraper, so we're going to tax you as if you had!

Replacing that tax methodology is tricky, and Lesmeister wants to have more conversations with experts, but he'd rather return to assessing land on sale and rental value than keep the current system. At least with land sale prices, says Lesmeister, we're dealing with real numbers.

In general, Lesmeister says, the best tax reform would allow everybody to pay less. But he recognizes that we've got to pay for what we need. Nowhere is that tension more apparent than in road funding. He admires the efforts of Senator Mike Vehle (R-20/Mitchell) to find money to improve our roads. He praises Senator Vehle for pushing people to get beyond griping and propose real solutions. Lesmeister says the ugly reality is that federal funding will dwindle and that state and county governments will have to pick up more of the tab for getting from Buffalo to Timber Lake.

Lesmeister says we could take some of the pressure off our highways by expanding railroads. He doesn't favor state ownership, but he would support incentives for private industry to build more rail shipping capacity.

Lesmeister does not support the Keystone XL pipeline. He says laying pipe across South Dakota to ship North American oil out to the global export market doesn't do South Dakota a bit of good. He challenges the assertion that running against Keystone XL will do in Democrats; in his district, the tribes are strongly opposed to the pipeline, and folks in Bison and elsewhere along the Keystone XL route don't say much nice about the pipeline to Lesmeister. (Remember: Betty Olson thinks Keystone XL is just peachy, as do far too many other South Dakota legislators.) At the very least, Lesmeister says we should learn from examples in Wyoming and North Dakota and not let Big Oil walk all over us.

Lesmeister also talks Medicaid expansion with his District 28 neighbors. He says South Dakota will eventually accept the money being offered under the Affordable Care Act to cover low-income South Dakotans. We have to, says Lesmeister, in part to make up for the $14 million he says we'll lose in the coming year as our increasing state income lowers the federal aid we qualify for under existing Medicaid rules.

Lesmeister recognizes the need for economic development in his big corner of the state, on reservation and off. He says the major challenge to creating jobs in District 28 is not lack of workers or skills; contrary to certain prejudgments, Lesmeister says his neighbors on the Cheyenne River Reservation want to work. Simple geography makes it hard to lure businesses: Eagle Butte and Lemmon are a long way to ship inputs and outputs. Economic development needs to focus on improving and maintaining the infrastructure necessary to connect West River businesses to their suppliers and customers. Lesmeister says Northern Beef Packers would have been a great project to build in his neighborhood, given that it could have relied on local supply. (Hmm... EB-5 to benefit the reservations... don't forget that idea!)

I mention women's issues to Lesmeister, and he focuses on legal protections against domestic abuse and sex trafficking, an issue of particular concern for reservations near the proposed Keystone XL construction camps and the man camps of the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. He doesn't propose new laws; he says we can protect women sufficiently by stepping up our enforcement of laws already on the books.

As for abortion rights, Lesmeister says he as a legislator should never decide such issues. He says he would resist legislative efforts to further curtail women's reproductive rights. "It's too big of an issue" for the Legislature to decide, says Lesmeister; any abortion legislation should go straight to the ballot so all South Dakotans can vote.

Lesmeister wants to talk about these issues and everything else on voters' minds right through Election Day. He invites his neighbors to give him a shout via his Facebook campaign page and his campaign phone (605-365-6856—yup, he said I could publish that). Ping him, ring him... Oren wants your thoughts and your vote on November 4!

4 comments

Surely the South Dakota Board of Regents will spend some time at this week's meeting in Aberdeen discussing the suddenly prominent and politically potent Darley v. SDIBI litigation. But that discussion would be tucked away in the executive sessions on this week's agenda.

Not tucked away are the numerous information items the Regents will discuss, including...

1. The FY2014 Distance Education Report! Did you know that 22,533 students took 162,812 credit hours through distance courses during the last school year? SDSU and USD each claim about a third of those students; 8.1% of those distance learners were enrolled at DSU. SDSU and USD together also offer about two thirds of all distance-learning course sections, while BHSU offers almost as many as DSU, around 14%.

2. Earnings of Liberal Arts Majors! Yes, we're poor. Always will be. And won't care, because we are saving the world for wisdom and beauty.

Earnings by degree field and age for South Dakota and adjoining states, South Dakota Board of Regents report on Earnings of Liberal Arts Majors, October 2014.

Earnings by degree field and age for South Dakota and adjoining states, South Dakota Board of Regents report on Earnings of Liberal Arts Majors, October 2014. (Click to embiggen!)

3. Graduate Production in SDWINS Targeted Fields! The Regents tout their ability to respond to the market by cranking out the degrees that Governor Daugaard says the market wants.

Regental Grads by SDWINS Target GroupNotice that of the six categories identified as high-need areas for economic development, the Regents have seen increased interest in all but one: teaching. The number of Regental graduates in education has evidently dropped 14% under the Daugaard regime.

4. The SDBOR Strategic Plan! Expect discussion to revolve around just one goal out of the 20 for 2020 listed: by 2020, the Regents want to see the state's share of higher education funding rise from the current 37% to 50%. That's a pretty heavy lift; all you Republican appointees had better go home and help elect more Democrats!

Surely the Regents will want to focus their energies on those pressing educational issues and more and not be distracting by all the blame GOP Senate candidate Mike Rounds is trying to heap on them for the EB-5 mess. Perhaps the Regents should simply release all those yummy documents they have about EB-5 and let us sort through the evidence while they focus on running the universities.

5 comments

I learn from the Patheos:Inklingations blog that USD philosophy professor Joseph Tinguely has penned a pointed riposte to his employer Governor Dennis Daugaard's persistent denigration of Tinguely's chosen field—philosophy—and the product he cranks out for the state—philosophy majors.

Professor Tinguely brands the Governor's declaration that philosophy majors are not profitable as "false" and "myth". Tinguely cites a Wall Street Journal chart (with PayScale.com data) showing that by midcareer, philosophy majors out-earn information technology grads. (Engineers are at the top; I look dolefully at my wife and note that education and religion majors are at the bottom.) Philosophy majors also rock grad school entrance exams.

Tinguely says philosophy majors' skills are fundamental to success:

These results are not surprising for anyone with the slightest knowledge of what professionally transferable skills a philosophy degree actually develops in its students. The ability to identify and formulate an argument for oneself and to communicate it clearly to others; the critical capacity to recognize assumptions and evaluate reasons; the confidence to express oneself in speech and in writing; these are not just skills required to do philosophy well, these are the very skills required to do any job well. Everyone is always “doing philosophy” whether she knows it or not, but only a regrettably few take upon themselves the discipline and responsibility of learning how to do it well [Joseph Tinguely, "Philosophy Degree Offers a Lifetime of Value," that Sioux Falls paper, 2014.09.24].

I'd rather beat the Governor's anti-humanities tirade by pointing out there's more to life than money. But even if you stay in Governor Daugaard's cash-only paradigm, Tonguely shows that philosophy can profit everyone.

25 comments

Uh oh—I feel another Hobo Day Riot coming on....

For those of you who believe everything you read on the Internet, Noodle.com says the most influential college in South Dakota is... Augustana College.

In other states, Noodle picks the predictable public behemoths as the most influential: University of Minnesota, Twin Cities; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; University of Texas, Austin. But in South Dakota, two state campuses each posting headcounts over 10,000 and together cranking out over 4,200 degrees a year evidently exert less influence than one private campus fielding 1,800 students and graduating fewer than 400 a year.

Do these ratings stand up as well as a wet version of that website?

Noodle.com says it calculates influence based on these four factors:

  1. Search engine popularity
  2. Twitter authority
  3. Number of affiliated Nobel Prize winners
  4. US News rank

That's all we get, so we can't replicate Noodle.com's data noodling perfectly. It's mostly Google-happy proxy talk, with the exception of Nobel Prize winners. On that front, if we're talking South Dakota natives, Ernest Lawrence, the inventor of the cyclotron, got his undergraduate degree from the University of South Dakota. Economist Theodore Schultz graduated from SDSU.

If we are talking about determining the influence of colleges within their own states, we perhaps do better to work from our own knowledge of where our leaders come from. USD provides a lion's share of our political leaders; Augustana College has yet to produce a U.S. Senator, U.S. Representative, or Governor for South Dakota (although Susan Wismer is trying to change that).

If we're talking about industry, SDSU's agriculture and engineering grads surely give USD business grads and School of Mines engineers runs for their money in every local Chamber of Commerce.

Of course, if we're talking economic development, Northern State University, as the employer of Joop Bollen, gets all of the credit for bringing $600 million and over 5,000 jobs to South Dakota through EB-5 investment. Go Wolves!

If we're talking about future leaders, consider that SDSU produced the most teacher education graduates this year, 145. Black Hills State produced 143 teachers; USD, 104. The College Board tells me 11% of Augie's grads come out with teaching degrees, suggesting about 40 new teachers a year.

But how does one really measure the influence of any given institution? Readers, alumni, professors and campus partisans, I open the question for your evening noodling: which campuses wield the most influence in South Dakota?

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Last March, the Chamberlain School Board received a letter from the King (as in Martin Luther King. Jr.) Center for Nonviolent Social Change asking the board to recognize the ongoing request of many of its constituents to include a Lakota honor song in its high school graduation ceremony. Long-time Chamberlain resident and Indian rights advocate James Cadwell asked the Board for an opportunity to discuss that letter publicly at its April meeting. Chamberlain superintendent Deb Johnson responded thus:

Jim,

You will be placed on the April 14 school board agenda under the 'delegation' portion to address the topic: Resolution Recognizing District-Wide Cultural Competence (7/12/10). You will be granted five minutes to present comments to the board. Please note that the honor song will not be addressed or discussed... [Supt. Deb Johnson, e-mail to James Cadwell, Chamberlain School District, 2014.04.10].

Ah, the administrative passive voice, a sure sign someone is saying something unpleasant that she doesn't want to own.

The Mitchell Daily Republic called the banning of discussion of the honor song unconstitutional. James Cadwell calls the speech ban a violation of his civil rights, and in July, he submitted a formal complaint to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights:

6. Describe the discrimination: On what basis were you discriminated against?

Race; retaliation—I received a letter from superintendent Debra Johnson of the Chamberlain public schools that I would not be allowed to participate in the Chamberlain school board's meeting because I wanted to talk about the Native American honor song and the letter of support that was sent for the honor song from the Martin Luther King center in Atlanta, Georgia. I was also told by the school board president Rebecca Reimer that the honor song issue is a dead issue and we will not be talking about it anymore.

...8. What would you like the institution to do as a result of your complaint?

Follow their own bylaws and allow everyone to speak openly about their concerns with school policy. Resend the motion and change the bylaws back to allowing a subject to be discussed more than one time. This came about at the exact time the denial was given for further discussion of the honor song. And remove the change in length of time that was additionally imposed as a result of the request to further discuss the honor song. There currently are no Native American people serving on the school board, The time allowed for input was 10 minutes and has now been reduced to 5 minutes unless approved by the school board, as no Native American peers serve on the board this has never happened. I have seen many non-native people exceed the 5 minute rule without consequences being imposed. I however have been held to the 5 minute rule with a stop watch. Nearly 40% of the students in this school are Native American [James Cadwell, text submitted in support of civil rights complaint to U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, July 2014].

This complaint has bite because it speaks the one language that every school board understands—money:

OCR is responsible for enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI), 42 U.S.C. §2000d, and its implementing regulation, 34 C.F.R. Part 100. Title VI prohibits recipients of Federal financial assistance from the Department from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.

As a recipient of Federal financial assistance from the Department, the District is subject to Title VI [Joshua Douglass, supervisory attorney, Office of Civil Rights, letter to James Cadwell, 2014.09.03].

The Chamberlain school district receives hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in Federal Impact Aid as compensation for the large number of American Indian students from families living on federal, non-tax-generating property. According to the board's June 23 minutes, as of May 31, the district had a balance of $2.66 million in its Impact Aid account.

If the OCR finds Chamberlain is violating civil rights by stifling discussion of the Lakota honor song, it can order the board to remedy the situation or lose that valuable federal funding.The OCR acts on the authority of Title VI and federal dollars. A ruling on this one point would say to Chamberlain that it has been acting in ways that could cause it to lose a big chunk of federal dollars. Thanks to the cowardly misers we send to Pierre, Chamberlain and other school districts can't afford to lose a penny. If the OCR rules in favor of Cadwell on his complaint, it will hang a sword of Dollarcles over the Chamberlain school board's heads... a sword sharpened by Republicans themselves.

The Chamberlain school board could render this complaint and this threat to its federal funding moot with six simple words: "Mr. Cadwell, the floor is yours." They could let him speak at length about the King letter, the honor song, and civil rights. They wouldn't even have to respond, just listen. Listening isn't that hard... unless it's an invitation to a conversation that you don't want to have.

8 comments

Oh, look—white kids dressed up in mock Indian garb:

Photo of Watertown HS homecoming (known locally as "Ki-Yi") royalty, Watertown Public Opinion, 2014.09.19, screen cap 2014.09.23

Photo of Watertown HS homecoming (known locally as "Ki-Yi") royalty, Watertown Public Opinion, 2014.09.19, screen cap 2014.09.23

Not having had the pleasure of graduating from Watertown, Home of the Arrows, I can't speak to the rich local tradition behind the branding of homecoming week as a celebration of Dakota culture. I invite locals and proud alumni to fill us in.

Homecoming activities evidently do not include having all students dress up as Indians. But to pile irony upon irony, student organizers kicked off the in-school celebrations by designating Monday as 'Merica Day (yes, with the apostrophe), on which students were to wear patriotic garb. Those who chose not to wear red, white, and blue could opt for nerd outfits.

Related Reading:

398 comments

As a supplement to our discussion of the teacher shortage and the Legislature's and Governor's keen desire not to focus on teacher pay as a solution, I offer the average starting salaries for teachers in the seven-state region (in the 2012–2013 school year):

  Avg Start Salary Avg Salary
Wyoming $43,269 $57,920
Minnesota $34,505 $56,268
Iowa $33,226 $51,528
North Dakota $32,019 $47,344
Nebraska $30,844 $48,931
South Dakota $29,851 $39,580
Montana $27,274 $49,999
Nat'l Avg $36,141 $56,383

The disparity between South Dakota's starting salary and the amount available out-state isn't as drastic as the disparity between average salaries. We might even have some leverage in recruiting Montana grads to come make $2,600 more during their first year. But if they want to clear $30K a year and grab a rung on a tall long-term salary ladder, they head somewhere besides Montana and South Dakota.

On the bright side, on starting salary, we're not the worst. We're only second-worst. Yay.

3 comments

I can hear the conversation in Pierre: We're short on teachers, and folks going to expect better pay... quick! Blow smoke!

South Dakota’s superintendents say schools are struggling to fill open positions mainly because of low teacher pay, while policymakers suggest a solution to the teacher shortage isn’t simple and the problem won’t be fixed with funding alone [Kevin Burbach, "Lawmakers Say Education Needs More Than Just Money," AP via that Sioux Falls paper, 2014.09.21].

Actually... yeah, it will. Raising teacher pay would do more to solve South Dakota's worsening teacher shortage than any other single policy action. $10,000 more in every teacher's paycheck would change more teachers' minds about moving or retiring or taking up welding than improving teacher training and "support," the ideas Rep. Jacqueline Sly (R-33/Rapid City) mentions in Burbach's report. (At least Burbach gets Rep. Sly's name right; he calls Democratic Rep. Paula Hawks "Tessa".)

At the bottom of the article, spokesman Tony Venhuizen reminds us what the Daugaard Administration really thinks of the teacher shortage—they'd like to make it permanent:

“Particularly in some small districts we see they’re making decisions to keep larger staffs, to keep their staffing levels higher rather than to use the money to pay fewer teachers more [Tony Venhuizen, quoted in Burbach, 2014.09.21].

That's right, far from a shortage of teachers, Governor Daugaard still thinks we have too many teachers. Getting rid of a third of our teachers would deprive our kids of even more resources and support in school, but hey! those darn teachers lean union and Democrat anyway! Who needs 'em?

There are plenty of other, more positive legislative actions we can take to improve our K-12 schools. So let's not dilly-dally: let's raise teacher pay so we can get on to those other improvements.

61 comments

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