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South Dakota Superintendent Sued Over Limited-Voucher Program

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A South Dakota group representing small schools is suing the state superintendent of education, charging that he acted illegally in implementing a statewide limited-voucher program this fall.

Last spring, as part of an education-reform package, the South Dakota legislature approved a "family option" measure allowing parents in districts with high-school enrollments of fewer than 45 students the option of sending children to larger schools in neighboring districts.

But in June, two weeks before the education bill was to take effect, a group called keep (Keep Educational Excellence a Priority) gathered enough signatures to submit the bill to a voter referendum, thus blocking enactment of the plan until the general election in November 1986, according to Larry Johnke, spokesman for the group.

Transfers Approved

Despite the move to block the new law, however, James O. Hansen, state superintendent of schools, allowed two students from small schools to transfer to adjacent school districts to attend larger high schools this fall. keep filed suit last month to block further activity; the state circuit court has scheduled a hearing for Oct. 25.

A spokesman for the superintendent said Mr. Hansen's approval of the "family option" transfers was legal because there were two separate laws dealing with the establishment of the family option and only one of them was referred to the 1986 general election. The bill appropriating the funding for the plan was not referred, and that provided the authority for the superintendent's action, the spokesman said.

But state Representative Kent Frerichs disagreed. "The intent of the people was clearly to refer the law," he said.

Mr. Frerichs said the opposition group did not include the appropriations bill in its petition drive because the bill included all education funding and the group did not want to tie up school budgets until the 1986 election.

"The executive-branch maneuvering around the referendum is a slap in the face to citizens who exercised their constitutional right of referendum," he charged.

Mr. Frerichs said he opposes the limited-voucher plan because it will hurt small rural schools by creating insecurity in schools where enrollment is dropping and causing some teachers to look for jobs at larger schools.

"The decision of a few families hurts a whole town," said Robert Weber, another legislator opposed to the plan. "They are not giving us a real choice. If a few kids transfer from a small school, they may be taking the school away from the whole town."

A spokesman for Gov. William J. Janklow, who first proposed the family-option plan, said families should be allowed to choose whether or not to keep their children in a small school that may not be able to meet their needs as well as a larger school. "It is wrong to imprison kids in a bad school if there is a good one a half-hour away that can better provide what they will need for the future," the spokesman added.

The Governor has asked the state supreme court to issue an advisory opinion on whether the executive branch has the authority to use appropriated funds if the contextual bill is being referred.--er

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