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Apr. 9—A lot about a school district can change over the course of two decades.
But one thing that hasn't changed for the Mitchell School District in that time is Neil Putnam sitting at the table at meetings of the Mitchell Board of Education. Putnam, 55, was first elected to the board in 2000, and he is the only member of the board from that era to remain a member of the governing body.
But that will end in July, after Putnam announced that his current term on the board will be his last. And while it would be understandable if the recent turmoil caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic, such as mask mandates and other efforts to stem the spread of the disease in the district, may have played a factor in his decision to take a step back, he said it was simply a combination of an already fruitful two decades of service and the desire to have more time to spend with family and other pursuits.
"I've been thinking about it for the last year or two," Putnam said in a recent interview with the Mitchell Republic. "I thought, maybe there is a way I could be active and participate in education, or be an advocate for them, but maybe in another capacity."
Putnam has put in countless hours of work already participating in and being an advocate for the Mitchell School District. He joined the board as a new member in 2000 when the district was undergoing or considering several changes. And there would be more to come, something he welcomed at the time thanks to his inherent interest in public service.
"I've always had the desire for public service. I started working as an intern in the legislature. I got involved in county government. It's always been in my blood somehow," Putnam said.
Even outside the Mitchell Board of Education, Putnam has extensive experience in public service. Since 1998, he has worked full-time as an administrator in the Mitchell city planning and zoning office, and prior to that worked as director of equalization for Davison County.
Looking back at his time on the board, Putnam cites the Mitchell Technical College campus move as one of the bigger and more exciting challenges he has faced in his time on the board. At the time of his arrival on the board, Mitchell Tech was located in what is now the Mitchell Career and Technical Education Academy just across the street from Mitchell High School.
The technical college now is one of the jewels along Interstate 90, sporting state-of-the-art facilities and offering technical career education to students from around the country. Enrollment has increased and the school is regularly cited for its student job placement success and the quality of expertise in its graduates.
"When (MTC) was starting some of the visioning process for the new campus, (the current MTC location) was just a field. That's one thing I look back on. We had about 700 or 800 students, now they're in the ballpark of 1,100 or 1,200. And at that new campus, they are always receiving accolades as one of the best tech schools in the nation," Putnam said.
As a publicly-funded entity, he was helping guide how local taxes were spent, as well as helping guide the education and safety of students in the Mitchell School District.
"I'm convinced to this day that local government — county, school, city — is the heart of what we're about and how government functions," Putnam said. "What's unique about the school board is you deal with taxes and you're dealing with kids, the most precious resource we have. To me, if the youth aren't engaged and well-educated and having access to a quality education, all the other things just kind of fall apart."
There were tough times, too, especially at the beginning. There were financial issues that had to be ironed out.
"When I first got on, we were facing some significant financial issues. (Superintendent Joe) Graves and I came aboard the same day, and we had a budget deficit, so our finances were precarious," Putnam said. "That was an eye-opener."
District voters later approved an opt-out of the state property tax freeze, allowing the district to levy additional taxes to help offset funding shortfalls. Mitchell School District voters approved it, so Putnam and his fellow board members kept a close eye on using that levying power responsibly.
That meant budget cuts, something he quickly learned affects teachers, programs and the students themselves.
"The voters later approved an opt-out, and we had to go through the voting. We had to make significant cuts, and as a rookie you really experience the don't-cut-this and don't-cut-that and those types of things. Then it dawns on you that it affects programs and people," Putnam said. "We made a commitment at that time that we would only levy when we absolutely needed it."
He took on roles with national organizations like the Associated School Boards of South Dakota and the National School Board Association, where he conferenced with board of education members from around the country, many of whom represented districts much larger than Mitchell, and a handful that were smaller.
And while he was often the one representing the smallest school district in his group, he also visited locales that clearly showed that Mitchell had a lot going for it. A visit to an impoverished out-of-state district reminded him of what was working well in Mitchell.
"You could tell they didn't have the resources like us or many districts," Putnam said.
He's grateful for the knowledge he picked up during his time with groups like ASBSD and NASB, and also appreciated the attentiveness of South Dakota's representatives in the U.S. Congress, such as the work done by then-Rep. Kristi Noem, for keeping their ears tuned to the situation in South Dakota schools, whether it be funding issues or regulatory oversight from the federal government.
"I was very pleased that our congressional delegation was always receptive to (discussing) education policy. They may have different opinions on the means, but I must give a shout out to our past and current delegation," Putnam said.
In the end, the bottom line was making sure the Mitchell School District was functioning as smoothly and efficiently as possible. That meant long hours outside school board meetings. It's a vital part of the job that most people don't necessarily see in the day-to-day operations of the district.
"It's not one or two meetings per month, by any means. From my view, you have to ask a lot of questions, and in our district we have a lot of committees, curriculum reviews," Putnam said. "There is a lot of extra time and preparing for the meetings, ample reading and getting information beforehand. If information is lacking, you reach out."
Putnam said one of the most uncertain times he has faced on the board was the arrival of COVID-19. The pandemic forced Mitchell into remote learning for a semester when the disease first appeared on the scene, and the board's implementation of a mask requirement on school property caused a stir among district patrons who either felt masks were unhelpful or even detrimental to public health.
Uncertainty was everywhere, even for an experienced board member like Putnam. And he felt the pain of his fellow district patrons. As the father of a graduating senior, his family missed out on the cherished memories that parents, teachers and students lost last school year.
"This was just unprecedented. We prepared for it and had the technology available (to go to remote learning) and things of that nature, and then boom, it was here," Putnam said. "I had a senior in last year's class, so it hit me personally."
The mask mandate was part of the effort to ensure students and teachers were able to hold live classes this year, something education professionals said was vital. The board was one of the first in the state to require masks on school property, and while Putnam said that it was one of the most difficult decisions he had to make, he believes the board made the right decision on masks as well as other efforts to protect the staff and students.
"We did everything we could to prevent (going to remote learning). We just did everything we could, and we were bombarded with information, which is good. That's what we want," Putnam said. "I probably had more parental engagement with that than in the past, which is also good. We did everything we could, and fortunately we haven't closed the school (since) and most activities were able to be held."
With only a few months left in his tenure on the board, Putnam is wishing his fellow board members and whomever is elected to replace him the best of luck. He is excited to see where the future leads for the district, and hopes the five-member board will continue to seek out good information and govern wisely by using it.
"Keep aware of the changing dynamics of public information and be engaged," Putnam said. "That would be my advice. I wish them the best of luck," Putnam said.