Donald A. Kirkegaard

Angling for a Rural Community’s Surviva by Jay P. Goldman

Don Kirkegaard has seen the way the U.S. Census portrays his corner of South Dakota, and it’s not a pretty picture.

“It’s scary,” he concedes.

As superintendent of the Britton Public Schools, a school district snuggled into the northeastern corner of South Dakota, Kirkegaard realizes the rapid population decline across the upper Midwest does not bode well for public schooling. Even his own community, which enjoyed slight gains in student enrollment for 12 years running, showed a drop of 25 students last fall, or nearly 5 percent of Britton’s total.

But he’s not about to let the wicked economic and demographic forces rule the day. A lifelong state resident, Kirkegaard has deftly guided his school district into a position that guarantees its short-term existence and strengthens its prospects for the long haul.

He’s accomplished this in part through his knack for attracting more than a fair share of state and federal grants to the 514-student school system in recent years. (He’s so successful in this regard that some friends have dubbed him “General Grant.”) But even more significantly, Kirkegaard has built a compelling case for consolidating school operations.

This summer, his district will join with the Hecla schools, its neighbor 25 miles to the west, to form a greatly strengthened school combine. The Britton-Hecla district is very much Kirkegaard’s stepchild as he committed nearly two years of planning and gentle campaigning among Hecla board members and then his own community to gain public support for the new entity, which will serve more than 600 students.

Kim Buhl, Britton’s school board president, accompanied the superintendent to his first meeting with Hecla’s board, which had invited three bordering districts to make merger pitches to the failing system.

“Don had done his homework,” says Buhl. “He knew what a consolidation would mean for both. (He said) ‘Here’s what we can do for your kids.’ … What’s more, he said the two systems combined wouldn’t mean both would lose their personality.”

The new district “really solidifies our future,” crows Doug Card, publisher and editor of the weekly Britton Journal.

Through his even-handed approach, Kirkegaard ensured that emotional reactions would not overtake the proceedings—something he says most state dictates on school district consolidation fail to consider. He proposed incorporating Hecla into the new district’s name and promised that Hecla teachers and administrators would have an equal shot at filling jobs.

More than 80 percent of both towns ratified the merger, which establishes a new governing board with seven members elected at large. Indicative of Kirkegaard’s thoughtful sales approach of the merger as a marriage with equal partners, the two communities jointly elected three Hecla citizens to the fledgling board, despite Britton’s decided edge in voting strength.

“What we do now has an impact 20 years down the road,” he says. “We’re not just absorbing a district as it would have happened in the past.”

Kirkegaard, who carries the dual role of elementary school principal, has built an appealing instructional program and a quality staff in Britton on the strength of several hundred thousand dollars worth of government grants for technology and staff training. He has brought trainers into Britton schools and then freed teachers for days at a time to develop applications for using the technology in their lessons.

Britton’s computer lab attracted considerable attention as one of the first in South Dakota, a state recognized for its wiring of every public school. Yet Kirkegaard appreciates the limitations of technology and the false sense of security that investments in hardware can bring. He says, “Technology doesn’t necessarily improve your math scores or your reading scores … because it may take attention away from rote skills. You need to draw a balance.”

His eight years in Britton have drawn notice among outsiders, who have tapped into the superintendent’s expertise by appointing him to the state’s Technology in Education board, the professional practices commission and the South Dakota Testing Commission.

Kirkegaard is also well respected outside his rural confines. This summer, he assumes the chairmanship of the regional accrediting body, the North Central Association Commission on Schools, which is responsible for pre-collegiate institutions in 19 states plus the Department of Defense Dependents Schools. He admits to being a little nervous about the prestigious post.

But NCA’s executive, Ken Gose, says the board couldn’t have elected a more suitable leader. “When I’m around Don, he always wants to know what does this mean for kids?”

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail:

Don Kirkegaard