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Makenzie Huber
South Dakota Searchlight

A rural western South Dakota school district is one of several across the country to receive a surprise donation from billionaire philanthropist Mackenzie Scott.

White River School District got $1.5 million from Scott about a month ago. Scott, who has a 4 percent stake in Amazon, has donated just under $2 billion over the last seven months to hundreds of organizations, including a number of public school districts.

The district is renowned in South Dakota for its basketball legacy, but its student population is small. It serves just 415 students from Pre-K through high school, nearly all of whom are housed under one roof in the town of just over 500.

About 90 percent of students are Native American, and the school district stretches about 900 square miles. A handful of students and faculty commute 30 minutes each day, either driving from ranches or from the nearby town of Norris.

Superintendent Louie Krogman ignored the initial email about the donation in mid-September, assuming it was a phishing scam.

“They sent a follow up email after I didn’t respond, and then I decided to call them to make sure it was real,” Krogman said. “I about fell out of my chair hearing it.”

FILE - In this March 4, 2018, file photo, then-MacKenzie Bezos arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills, Calif. Galvanized by the racial justice protests and the coronavirus pandemic, charitable giving in the United States reached a record $471 billion in 2020, according to a Giving USA report released Tuesday, June 15, 2021. MacKenzie Scott stormed the philanthropy world in 2020 with $5.7 billion in unrestricted donations to hundreds of charities. The seven- and eight-figure gifts were the largest many had ever received. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)
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The funds have no strings attached. They can be used to pay for student scholarships, technology updates or even a new gym. The White River gym is not only used for school activities and assemblies but also for community events.

The school district is already using federal funds for building updates, including roof repairs. That money amounts to roughly $4.5 million, allocated in three rounds of American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, Krogman said. South Dakota schools received $382 million from that source.

That means the district won’t need to use the newly donated money for building repairs. Instead, they can use it in whatever way they think will benefit their students the most, letting their “imagination take over,” he said.

Krogman wants his students more invested in their education.

“We’re just really focusing on the health and wellbeing of our students. It all goes together…” Krogman said. “We want them to form relationships that will help them not only get through school, but to see that if they continue their education, good things will happen. We want to make school a great resource educationally and for the wellbeing of our students as a whole.”

The district will host conversations with school board members, faculty and staff, students and community members soon to collect ideas on how to use the cash infusion. Whatever they decide, Krogman hopes it benefits the entire community.

“I don’t know why or how we were selected, but we’re very grateful and happy to receive it,” Krogman said. “We need to get organized, make it worthwhile and leave a lasting impact on our school.”

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This article first appeared in South Dakota Searchlight.