For years, South Dakota’s low teacher salaries have seemed about as immovable as the state’s most famous landmark, Mount Rushmore, which is not far from where Rapid City teacher Tamara Kerns works.
Back in college, she and her fellow aspiring teachers talked about the salary issue, she says. Upon graduation, recruiters from states as far away as Colorado showed up at job fairs to entice teachers with promises of higher pay. And today, her district has hadin part because of the pay pressures.
So like many educators in South Dakota, the 10-year veteran was both surprised and optimistic about lawmakers’ recent approval of a half-penny sales-tax increase—the first in 40 years—designed to boost teacher salaries.
“I know that a lot of people feel that what we get paid is kind of the measure of the value that our state and our parents and communities put on education,” said Kerns, an instructional-support teacher. “In my building, I see people give more of themselves to their kids than I think anybody understands.”
The tax increase is the centerpiece of a bipartisan effort to raise the average teacher salary in the state to $48,500. It cleared its final legislative hurdle last week, and Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who has championed the measure, is expected to sign it.
“This is truly historic, in that a state like ours, very conservative with fiscal funding and one of the lowest tax rates in the country, would be looking at this,” said Wade Pogany, the executive director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota. “It’s a gigantic move for us—and with a Republican governor no less.”
The state’s average teacher salary in 2013-14 was just over $40,000, the lowest of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, according to National Education Association tabulations. An average salary of $48,500 would bump the state up by about 15 slots, just below neighboring North Dakota.
South Dakota’s low teacher salaries were one of the precipitating factors behind Gov. Daugaard’s decision to create a Blue Ribbon Task Force in 2015 to address education spending. In November, thatfor teacher pay and reorienting its school-financing formula.
Education organizations, many local chambers of commerce, and agricultural interest groups were among those supporting the changes.
Two companion bills that complete the education overhaul
have cleared the state Senate and are awaiting action in the House of Representatives.
But the tax measure was by far the biggest challenge, because both chambers needed to approve it by a two-thirds super-majority. The state House barely cleared the threshold, and in the Senate, the proposal faced an unexpected hurdle when Sen. David Novstrup, a Republican, proposed reducing the sales-tax increase to a quarter of a penny and then to three-tenths of one. In the end, those amendments were defeated, and the bill including the half-cent increase was passed March 1.
Low pay has been an issue in the state for so long that, shortly after the vote, some South Dakota teachers said on Twitter they were still skeptical that the new funding would make its way into their paychecks.
But the bill stipulates that districts that don’t put at least 85 percent of the new revenue into salaries will lose half of their state aid.
“Districts will need to be accountable to ensure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do,” said Mary McCorkle, the president of the South Dakota Education Association. “We watch way too many teachers march across the borders.”
Funding Formula Altered
The tax increase is expected to be coupled with a major change to the state’s school-funding formula.
Rather than being based on per-pupil allocations, districts would receive money based. For example, a district with 700 students would receive enough cash to cover a 15-to-1 student-teacher ratio, or about 47 teachers paid at $48,500, plus an additional premium to cover benefits and overhead. One goal of the switch is to make districts more accountable for staffing decisions.
In addition, the formula would also gradually account for varying municipal revenue sources, like traffic fines and wind-energy taxes. The change is supposed to equalize school funding among districts so that those with more local revenue don’t get a spending advantage.
Initially, every district will see an overall increase in state aid. But it’s less clear how the changes will play out over time.
Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton, a Democrat, said his colleagues will be watching the changes closely, especially for their impact on the state’s many small school districts. Because some of them have more teachers than envisioned under the new formula, they may have to choose between paying their teachers less—or letting some go.
“I think we’re far from done. I think we need to make sure our smaller schools get to where they need to be,” Sutton said.
Overall, the plan “isn’t a perfect solution,” he said. “But it is a South Dakota solution.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2016 edition of Education Week as S.D. Makes Move to Lose Label of State With Lowest Teacher Pay