S.D. Busing Measure May Get Lost in Shuffle

With just a month to go before the November general election, people on both sides of a school busing measure worry that too few voters will understand or even know about it because more high-profile issues are getting all the attention.

At issue is whether the state constitution should be changed so public schools can provide busing and hot lunches to private schools.

Current constitutional language says no state government money or property can benefit any sectarian or religious institution, although a change was approved several years ago to let public schools provide textbooks to private schools.

This year the Legislature approved a resolution to let voters decide whether the constitution should be amended so public schools can provide transportation and hot lunch to private schools.

While supporters and opponents have sharply divided views, both fear voters have been distracted by the presidential election, tight U.S. Senate and House races and a proposal to dump the state sales tax on groceries and won't be prepared to make a sound decision.

"There is so much noise on the ballot," said Rep. Matt Michels (search), R-Yankton, who supports the measure.

Some voters may not even know about it, adds Robert Whitehead, executive director of the South Dakota Education Association (search), which opposes the plan.

"Many people are sort of tied up with other issues and Amendment B is not on the radar screen yet," Whitehead said.

According to Michels, the ballot measure merely fixes a glitch in the state constitution that prevents cooperation among private and public schools.

Because the constitution bars public schools from providing transportation to private institutions, school boards are reluctant to set up shared services because of liability issues, said Michels.

But "if in the constitution it allowed public schools to provide busing, it (transportation) would be fine based on the state's authority," said Michels.

If a public school bus is going down a road, there is no reason why it can't pick up a private school student who lives along the same route, he says.

"This wasn't a religious issue at all," says Michels.

Whitehead says the matter is more complicated than that. If the state constitution is amended, taxpayers could end up paying transportation and hot lunch for students who attend church-sponsored schools and other kinds of private schools.

Down the road, the change could result in more bus routes, additional staff, "all sorts of things," Whitehead says.

"Should public tax money provide private students with these services? That's the fundamental choice the taxpayers need to make."

In addition, districts that decide against busing private school students might face lawsuits from parents who want the service extended to their children.

"It places some significant pressure on school districts," Whitehead says.

Michels dismisses Whitehead's concerns.

"(Amendment) B is for busing of all children," says Michels. "I think opponents' hysteria is not well founded and I don't think it serves the schools at all."

If voters approve Amendment B, it would go back to the Legislature and lawmakers would figure out the details, says Michels.

Voters should worry about giving lawmakers that sort of power, Whitehead says. "We have no idea what is in the minds of legislators."

Public schools, which already face financial pressures, might get slapped with a new mandate to bus or offer lunch to private school students, he says. And they probably won't be given any more money to provide those services, he says.

Whitehead says school districts in southeastern South Dakota and in the Rapid City area would be affected most because that's where most parochial schools are located.

But some rural districts also might face consequences if the change is applied to private schools run by American Indian tribes, he says. "It opens up all sorts of unintended consequences."

Michels insists schools would not face additional costs. "The buses are running anyway," he says.

"We're trying to find a compromise when there is a problem out there. I think this gets it done."