Supporting young people

Next Tuesday there is a vote in our community on a proposed school bond. Voters will either adopt or reject a bond for $189,553,000. If passed the funds will provide for three new elementary schools, a new middle school, Major renovations at several schools and an addition at one of the high schools. One high school, Rapid City High School, a school that serves student with special needs and challenges will be relocated, but the location and cost of that move has not yet been determined. The plan also calls for the closure of four neighborhood elementary schools.

It has been a long time since voters in the school district have approved a bond issue, so the list of needs is very long. The proposed plan is complex and there has been quite a bit of debate about various aspects of the plan. The vote, however, will not be nuanced. It will be a simple “yes” or “no.” The yard signs are equally simple.

It is, however, refreshing to hear our friends and neighbors talk about schools and children. We’ve lived in this community for 25 years. Our children both graduated from Rapid City area schools. We haven’t however, found this community to be exactly child friendly. There is a lot of lip service and no small amount of complaining about the lack of young people in our community. Our children, like the children of many of our friends and neighbors, have chosen to move to other states in pursuit of their lives and careers. A lot of South Dakota young people do just that. They pack up and move away.

Recently I read a letter written by a retired teacher that said, “If you see a person under the age of 50 you assume that the person is either in he Air Force and stationed at Ellsworth or has come home for the funeral of an aging relative.” It isn’t quite that bad. We have families in our church with young parents who have chosen to live and work in our city. We have a host of friends who are in their 20’s and 30’s. But the general climate of the community does tend to lean towards elders. Rapid City is, in many ways, a great place to retire. it has good medical services, convenient shopping, lots of entertainment options and a relatively low cost of living.

That low cost of living is due, in part, to low property taxes. In other words, we have been reluctant to pay for community services such as schools. It is a balancing act and Rapid City’s place in the balance is different than a lot of other communities.

Just last week the state legislature rejected a proposal to impose an extraction tax on limestone and bentonite to fund a new building at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Our neighbors in North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming impose extraction taxes on oil and minerals mined and use the funds to support schools, infrastructure and other community needs. But South Dakota has chosen not to impose that tax. The Governor is opposed to all new taxes and has the support of plenty of voters. It is the way we are here.

Regardless of how the vote turns out next week, our children will continue to face an uncertain future. As a nation we have not made children to be our highest priority. According to a new report by the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and the Lancet Commission concludes that no country offers a child both the chance of a healthy upbringing and an environment fit for their future. The report ranks countries for the overall health and wellbeing of children. The United States ranked 39th in a list of 180 countries.

The report, of course, is only one way of judging the prospects of children, but it is a bit of an eye-opener to see that a child’s opportunity to flourish is higher in 38 countries than it is in the United States. It says something about our priorities as a country.

I frequently find my self in conversations with people my age and older who bemoan the lack of young people’s participation in various organizations and activities. The complaints, however, don’t seem to translate into action to make their organizations and activities more appealing to young people. A number of years ago I decided to quit participation in a service club after years of meetings that were filled with complaints about young people not getting involved while the club did nothing to welcome young people. When a younger person tried to check out the club, they were told that they had to do things the way we’ve always done them. At the time I was one of the youngest members of the group and I became tired of the inflexibility of the others. The club has continued to shrink until it now has merged with another group because it lacked enough members to continue. That’s the thing about certain organizations - either you find ways to welcome younger members or one day you will all die and the organization will die with you.

I don’t know if a single vote on a single school bond will translate into a referendum on our community’s support of children and youth, but the conversations around the issue make it feel like it in some ways. Our state already is at the bottom when it comes to average teacher salaries. After years of being the lowest in the nation, we’ve improved our ranking to 49th. The ranking has 50 states plus the District of Columbia, so we’ve climbed up from 51st which was where we ranked during the years that our children were in school in South Dakota. Low pay doesn’t always translate into poor teachers. Our children encountered excellent teachers. There are other motivations for teachers than just salary. The Niche ranking of best places to teach in South Dakota examines other factors for teachers such as tenure, absenteeism, student-teacher ratio, administration, safety and resources. However, it doesn’t give Rapid City schools a very high ranking in our state.

In a week we’ll know the results of the election. No matter how it goes, we still have a lot of work ahead of us to make our community a place that truly honors and supports young people.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!