PIERRE | South Dakota teachers on March 1 moved one giant step closer to significant pay raises, as the state Senate voted 25-10 to increase the state sales and use tax from 4 percent to 4.5 percent.
The tax has been 4 percent since 1969, and the teachers have been in the national cellar pay-wise for a long time.
A group of Belle Fourche teachers had eagerly stood around a computer waiting to hear the voting results for HB1182.
One of them, second-grade teacher Shelly Mikkelson, said the legislation isn’t just about the raise for teachers, but will keep the best teachers in the district.
“A lot of teachers come here because it’s close to Black Hills State University where they went to school,” she said. “They get a job in Belle Fourche for a couple years, but then take higher-paying jobs out of state to pay back their loans.”
Mikkelson was nominated for Teacher of the Year in 2015 and then was named the South Dakota Education Association’s 2016 Teacher of Excellence.
“When student teachers from Black Hills State University can start out making $8,000 more than me in Wyoming, and I have a Master’s degree and 20 years of experience, I tell them to go for it,” Mikkelson said.
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Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard asked for the higher tax as part of a plan to raise the average teacher salary in public schools to $48,500 and get South Dakota out of last place nationally. Teachers on average will receive raises of about $8,000 apiece, but local school boards will set the actual amounts.
Daugaard's signature on the bill, which is almost certainly a sure thing considering his championing of moving the state's teachers out of last place, is all that is needed for the new tax to take effect June 1.
The legislation earmarks the proceeds from the sales-tax increase this way: 63 percent for increasing state aid to public schools, 34 percent for additional property-tax relief and 3 percent for raising instructor salaries at the four public technical institutes.
“It’s a bold move in the right direction for the education of the future of South Dakota,” said Rapid City School Board member Dave Davis after hearing the news.
A member of the task force Daugaard formed to study teacher pay, Davis said, "This is not a cure-all, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.”
Schools must use at least 85 percent of the new aid for teacher salaries. They will need to file financial reports to the state Department of Education as proof.
The Senate’s approval came eight days after the House of Representatives had passed the legislation on a second try. The House tally delivered 47 "aye" votes, the exact number required for the two-thirds majority needed. More than a simple majority was needed because the bill raised a tax.
Daugaard’s proposal would raise an estimated $107 million the first year.
House opponents claimed they could find money for teacher salary increases by rearranging parts of state government’s budget, but they didn’t offered a plan.
Instead Sen. David Novstrup, R-Aberdeen, offered smaller taxes of 4.3 percent and 4.25 percent Tuesday. Both amendments failed, receiving 13 "ayes" when 18 were needed.
“I just wanted to give people a chance at an alternative, and I tried,” Novstrup said.
Four Republican senators — Blake Curd of Sioux Falls, Bob Ewing of Spearfish, Scott Fiegen of Dell Rapids and Bruce Rampelberg of Rapid City — voted for Novstrup’s smaller tax increases, and then voted for the governor’s proposal.
“They might have had other preferences, but they were going to be yeses in the end,” Senate Republican leader Corey Brown of Gettysburg said.
The 25 ayes were one more than needed for the two-thirds majority in the Senate. Curd noticeably paused when his name was called, before he declared "aye."
The only senator who didn’t vote for a tax increase in some form Tuesday was Republican Bill Van Gerpen of Tyndall. He opposed Novstrup’s amendments and Daugaard’s proposal.
Van Gerpen listed many millions of dollars that he said could be shifted to teacher salaries if the Legislature had the will.
“When you increase tax," Van Gerpen said, "you decrease freedom.”
House members eased into the back of the Senate chamber or appeared in the Senate gallery to watch the fight unfold.
The Senate’s eight Democrats took the governor’s side. Sen. Bernie Hunhoff, D-Yankton, said the plan “wasn’t the boldest” ever offered but all of the others in the past had been shot down.
“I wish we could do more,” Hunhoff said.
Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton, D-Burke, said history could be made. “We have to go with a plan that is possible,” he said.
“This will truly be a victory for South Dakota. This is it,” Sutton continued. “Everybody is watching, and it is time for a victory.”
South Dakota will need 1,403 teachers from outside the state during the next five years, and pay needs to be improved if they are going to be recruited, Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, said.
“The time is now,” Vehle said.
Some small-enrollment school districts might be unable to afford to keep all of their current teachers under the new students-teacher ratios that will be used for distributing state aid, according to Sen. Jim Peterson, D-Revillo.
Peterson, a 14-year legislator, said his support for the sales-tax increase was uncharacteristic. He further expressed confidence that more will be attempted for small schools.
“Please just think of this as a beginning,” Peterson said.
Sen. Deb Soholt, R-Sioux Falls, who served as co-chair of the task force, delivered the final remarks: “We’ve not run away from the hard things. Our citizens now have asked us to be bold for our kids.”
Like Rapid City School Board member Davis, teachers and administrators in the Black Hills lauded the Senate action.
“This is a big step for our teachers, to be given this recognition which makes it possible to increase their compensation,” said Hot Springs High School Principal Mary Weiss. “They certainly deserve it.”
Weiss, however, said there are still many details of the plan that need to be worked out. For example, she said counselors and librarians are not part of the teacher pay increase plan, so the district will have to figure out ways to increase the pay of those positions as well.
Hot Springs High School weight lifting/physical education instructor Ben Kramer said he “never got into teaching and coaching to become rich,” so for him personally, he hadn’t previously been pushing for an increase in pay for teachers. That was, however, until he realized the true “crisis” across the state and how fewer and fewer people are going into teaching and how difficult it has been for schools to compete with nearby states for the best teachers.
“As a parent myself, I’m happy to see this legislation passed because it will hopefully ensure that the state will continue to have quality teachers,” Kramer said.
Coleen Keffeler, career and technical-education coordinator at Sturgis Brown High School who has taught for 31 years, said: "I hoped this would happen, and now it has. It's nice to see that this was addressed before the last few days of the session. It's good to see that education was moved up on the schedule."
Keffeler, who grew up on a ranch south of Wall, signed her first teaching contract for $12,600 and now makes just over $50,000. She has two master’s degrees and was named the national career and technical-education teacher of the year. She knows she could make more money going elsewhere, but has committed to staying.
“I was raised here. My family is here,” she said. “I also have a commitment to the Meade School District students.”
Even though the Lead-Deadwood School District is exempt from the state funding formula due to Deadwood’s gaming revenues, Amy Vande Velde, a fifth-grade teacher at Lead-Deadwood Elementary School, said the commitment to increase teacher pay was long-awaited and welcome.
“I think it’s wonderful, and I hope it encourages good teachers to stay in our state instead of leaving for other states,” said Vande Velde, who has taught for a dozen years. “That’s good for South Dakota as well as for our student body.”
She added, "(I)t’s about time we were competitive with other states. Across the board, people in South Dakota are generally not paid what they’re worth.”
Davis said the 28 members of the governor's task force studied many different recommendations from a wide variety of sources.
“Our job was to try to take all of those ideas and try to find the best of the best, but also the ones you could get through the Legislature,” Davis said. “At the end of the day, if any of those ideas weren’t going to get through the legislature, then you had to re-evaluate that idea.”
Journal staff writers Brett Nachtigall, Emily Niebruegge, Deb Holland and Tom Griffith contributed to this story.