In South Dakota, the Gap is Growing Between Targeted and Actual Teacher Pay

Schools are lagging despite the 2016 Legislature’s efforts to address the problem by increasing the state’s sales tax.

An educator works with students at Cleveland Elementary School. (Sioux Falls School District)

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Schools are lagging the state’s target pay for teachers, and the gap is growing, according to data shared with a state board in Pierre.

That’s despite the 2016 Legislature’s efforts to address the problem by increasing the state’s sales tax by half a percentage point. This year, the Legislature reduced the state sales tax by three-tenths of a percentage point; meanwhile, the state’s average teacher pay stands at 49th in the nation.

The state’s Teacher Compensation Review Board conducted its first meeting of 2023 on Monday in Pierre.

“South Dakota was so far behind everyone else,” said state Sen. and Board Chair Jim Bolin, R-Canton, a former teacher. “We didn’t move up significantly in the number of states we passed, but we did close the gap.”

According to a report shared by the state Department of Education, South Dakota teachers were making an average of $42,025 during the 2015/2016 school year. During the 2016/2017 school year, the number jumped to 46,979.

The average teacher salary among the state’s approximately 10,000 teachers is now an estimated $51,363. The state Department of Education showed slides with a target of $55,756 for this year. And the state may veer further off track from that goal without a significant increase in compensation. The state’s goal for 2024 is $59,659.

South Dakota’s average teacher salary ranks only above Mississippi and West Virginia (the rankings extend to No. 51 because Washington, D.C., is included). The state is last among neighboring states, and about 7% of South Dakota teachers leave the profession each year.

A presentation shared with the board said the state also faces a teacher shortage, especially in elementary, special education, language arts, fine arts and math. Aberdeen Superintendent Becky Guffin told board members about the consequences of not having adequate staffing.

“We no longer have a calculus or statistics class,” Guffin said. “And I think we used to offer four foreign languages. We’ll be struggling to have a Spanish class next year.”

South Dakota Department of Education Secretary Joseph Graves followed that, saying, “And they’re not reflected in the data because you can’t have an opening for a position you don’t have.”

Graves said the state has a number of efforts in place to improve the situation. Those include advertising to recruit teachers from outside the state, a mentor program, and a pilot program that aims to help about 90 teacher aides from more than 50 school districts become fully certified teachers.

“Right now, we’re trying to see if the pilot works,” Graves said.

Ranking 49th in teacher pay is nothing to celebrate, said state Sen. Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls, who sits on the review board.

“Why can’t South Dakota be first in the region?” Nesiba told South Dakota Searchlight. “We should make education the priority that it deserves to be. When budgeting, we start there and build the rest of our budget around that. But we just don’t do that.”

Meanwhile, Gov. Kristi Noem announced Monday that state government closed the 2023 budget year with a surplus of $96.8 million.

Bolin said he wants to raise teacher pay.

“We’re doing reasonably well, but not well enough if we’re wanting to stay competitive,” he told South Dakota Searchlight.

A dearth of qualified counselors also emerged as a pressing concern during the board meeting. Graves said the state is likely “way under” the ideal counselor-to-student ratio.

“You can’t hire guidance counselors,” Graves said. “There just aren’t any people in that profession.”

The board, which was created in 2016 when the Legislature raised sales taxes for teacher pay, aims to draft recommendations for the next legislative session in Pierre this winter. The board’s next public meeting is scheduled for Aug. 21.

South Dakota Searchlight is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. South Dakota Searchlight maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Seth Tupper for questions: info@southdakotasearchlight.com. Follow South Dakota Searchlight on Facebook and Twitter.

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