South Dakota's college cost-cutting task force gavels out, will publish final report

From a sole food service vendor to consolidation of West River nursing courses at a Rapid City campus, recommendations from the Senate Bill 55 task force will be formally endorsed in a report before November. Gridlock with legislature could remain.

Congressman Dusty Johnson speaks at the University of South Dakota's commencement exercises on Saturday morning at the DakotaDome in Vermillion. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Matt Gade
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BROOKINGS, S.D. — The buzzsaw of negotiations among lawmakers, business leaders and college officials to winnow the state's university budget is now silent — with months to prepare final recommendations for a further slimming of the state's public university system expenses.

But it's still up-in-the-air what, if any, cuts — ranging from staff positions at the South Dakota Board of Regents central office in Pierre to faculty of low-enrolling courses to even food service vendors — will be endorsed by a report to the governor and the Legislature, expected by year's end.

At the culmination of the legislatively mandated task force on Thursday, June 3, SDBOR Executive Director Brian Maher spoke about the tenuous task of performing surgery on their budget by the legislative fiat of Senate Bill 55, the budget-trimming catalyst enacted by the Legislature and Gov. Kristi Noem in 2020.

"I don't think there are very many organizations or entities that enjoy being told what to do," said Maher. "But we were told what to do from the Legislature."

Of the nearly dozen proposals to achieve a "lean" budget Maher outlined on Thursday, many, if not most, had already publicly taken shape over the course of the various meetings , from Rapid City to Sioux Falls to this week's meeting in Brookings. Chief on the list of items is the potential right-sizing of administrative staff across the system and the repurposing Black Hills State University's Rapid City campus for health sciences.


Other cost-saving measures could include combining information technology systems, seeking out a single food vendor for the six public campuses, and cutting duplicative online courses. Maher said they will "modify" a mechanism for flagging programs with low enrollment.

But, notably, the task force has drawn a line around athletics budgets, and on Thursday Maher said they're recommending "no changes" to sports programs.

South Dakota's colleges, which enroll over 32,000 students, have seen a 15% reduction in funding from the Legislature since 1980, according to a 2020 report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. In-state students also pay some of the highest tuition rates, regionally, according to a 2016-17 survey by the Legislative Research Council.

A $50 million investment into a low-income college fund by the Legislature, signed by Noem, this legislative session was cheered as long overdue by lawmakers.

But the frayed relationship with the Republican-dominated Legislature may only sharpen in 2022. Some GOP legislators in South Dakota have accused faculty and staff of liberal biases on campuses, and last month regents questioned a Northern State University official about the need for foreign language curriculum. Simultaneously, other states have attempted to crack down on schools discussing racism in U.S. history through academic approaches derided as anti-American by GOP l awmakers.

To conclude Thursday's meeting, Maher — a former superintendent of the Sioux Falls school district who only took over the job a year ago — said that he was grateful to the board and the Legislature for forcing regents staff to not merely "check a box" but to really burrow into the dollar-trimming process.

The regents will discuss the task force later this month at a meeting in Madison and Maher said a strategic plan set to be published this fall will have the "fingerprints" of SB 55 "all over" that document. He also promised town hall meetings to bring the recommendations to the public. But he didn't mince words about the document's real audience: the Legislature.

"How do we ... help develop relationships with the legislators?" Maher asked, rhetorically. "While I think there's plenty left to do in that regard, I think there have been real positive steps."

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