Two years ago, South Dakotans joined together to solve a longstanding problem. Our state’s average salaries for teachers were lowest in the nation. Even after adjusting for cost of living differences, teachers made significantly more in our neighboring states. I heard from many educators that the problem had reached its breaking point. As many older teachers retired, schools were struggling to fill vacant positions.
The Blue Ribbon Task Force met throughout 2015, and after seeking input from thousands of South Dakotans, it recommended a number of solutions. I proposed several legislative changes based on that report, and a bipartisan coalition in the State Legislature passed versions of those proposals with two-thirds votes. We raised the state sales tax to put more money into education, changed the funding formula to prioritize teacher pay and put strict requirements in place for use of the new money.
Those salary increases took effect for the 2016-17 school year, and the state recently received the final results from that first year. We made great progress. In one year, salaries increased by an average of 8.8 percent. The Blue Ribbon legislation set a target average salary of $48,500, and in one year we moved more than halfway toward that goal.
Raises varied in individual school districts, but I was pleased to see that the largest increases happened in some of our smallest districts. Several districts, including Wall, Gayville-Volin and Mobridge-Pollock had increases of more than 20 percent, and Leola had an increase of nearly 30 percent.
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The State Legislature wanted assurance that the new money would be spent as intended – for higher teacher salaries – so the legislation included strict accountability measures. A school district that failed to direct at least 85 percent of those funds to teacher salaries could forfeit 50 percent of the new money it received – a very serious penalty. At the same time, however, the Legislature recognized that schools might fall short due to unforeseen circumstances, and created a waiver process by which a school district can explain its unique situation.
Thirty-six school districts failed to meet at least one aspect of the accountability requirements. They tend to be smaller districts. Although approximately one-quarter of districts missed a requirement, these districts account for less than 11 percent of the teacher salaries paid.
Most of these districts missed the target by a very small margin. Edgemont, for example, was short of the required spending on teacher salaries by 0.1 percent. Herreid missed the required average salary by $109. In Pierre, the district was short by 0.2 percent because a teacher passed away during the school year, which meant the school district spent a little less on salaries than planned.
Examples like these will be considered by the School Finance Accountability Board and the Joint Appropriations Committee. If a school made a good faith effort to comply with the law, and has a corrective plan in place, I hope these bodies will consider a waiver. If, on the other hand, a school district knowingly took the teacher salary funding and spent it for another purpose, it is important that the problem is remedied. The Blue Ribbon legislation was passed with the understanding that the money would be used for teacher salaries, and we owe it to taxpayers to keep that promise.