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PIERRE | The low average pay for teachers in South Dakota, especially when compared to energy-rich neighboring states, has long been seen as the major reason that many schools districts in the state will still have open teaching jobs when the school year starts tomorrow.

And the lower pay is likely a big factor, especially since the fact that South Dakota's average teacher pay is the lowest in the nation is part of every recent conversation about the nagging teacher shortage.

But the state Blue Ribbon Task Force, a group formed by the governor to find ways to improve K-12 education across the state, heard a different, more nuanced explanation for the teacher shortage last week.

Task force members — including a pair of lawmakers from Rapid City — were intrigued with data delivered by University of Pennsylvania professor Richard Ingersoll regarding teacher shortages. He said shortages have been normal since the 1950s, but the larger, underlying problem is turnover, even in math and science, rather than an inadequate supply.

Nationally the turnover rate is above 20 percent in poor rural and poor urban schools, and nearly half of teachers leave the profession within the first five years, Ingersoll said, citing long-term data from several decades of federal census surveys.

Current numbers for South Dakota indicated 30 of 151 districts have hiring difficulties this summer, including in Rapid City. “It’s not trivial, but it’s 20 percent of your schools,” Ingersoll said.

Job dissatisfaction is the No. 1 reason teachers quit, though inadequate pay ranks high too, according to the national data.

Ingersoll’s advice was to broaden the training given to teachers, and to take a more holistic approach to making teachers feel welcome, valued and respected. One way to address the turnover problem, he said, is through orientation and induction programs for new teachers and mentoring of less-experienced teachers by more-experienced colleagues.

“It does make a positive difference. I was surprised,” he said about mentoring. Research found mentoring improved commitment and retention, strengthened classroom practices and increased student achievement. 

“It’s not rocket science. On the other hand, no one is saying it’s easy to improve those things,” Ingersoll said.

Many of the task force members said in closing remarks they were surprised to learn so much of what they’d been led to believe about South Dakota schools have been myths.

“I think we all have a lot of work to do,” Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, said.

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One concept the task force heard about last week was a way to raise teacher pay by consolidating staffing at rural districts, which make up the bulk of South Dakota's public education system.

Members heard a presentation on distance learning Wednesday from the South Dakota Innovation Lab system, which is operated by the Mid-Central Education Cooperative from Platte, and from Julie Mathiesen, director for the statewide Technology and Innovation in Education center at Rapid City.

Mid-Central director Dan Guericke said the SDIL approach shares teachers among multiple schools, and that allows the pay to average about $47,000 plus benefits, which he said is substantially better than many teachers receive in south-central South Dakota. That is about $7,000 more annually than the state average salary.

Furthermore, the task force heard about a way of helping districts fill teaching gaps through a state-funded program using "E-Learning," or remote teaching that uses technology to connect teachers and students.

Mary Cundy of the Statewide Center for E-Learning on Wednesday explained to the task force how her group aids South Dakota schools in filling gaps caused by teacher shortages.

But her story also revealed the center, at Northern State University, isn’t always able to give all of the help schools need when they still have teaching vacancies come the August start of a new school year.

Cundy, who teaches calculus while also serving as the center's administrator, said she and 15 other teachers at the center taught 24 courses in the past school year for 1,233 students spread across 102 school districts.

Those classes, delivered through video conferencing and online, are free to the school districts, because the Legislature funds the center. But that arrangement also became a limitation in recent weeks, as various school officials asked NSU for help with teaching algebra, algebra II and geometry.

Even if she could have quickly hired the three additional teachers needed for those classes, Cundy didn’t have a ready way to pay them. The Legislature set the funding back in March and doesn’t meet again until January. There wasn’t more cash available now to make the three hires, according to NSU President Jim Smith.

“We know the demand curve is there," Smith said. "We certainly would like to meet that demand.”

The task force meets again Sept. 9, and will start setting goals and discussing recommendations for reaching them, said one of the co-chairs, Rep. Jacqueline Sly, R-Rapid City. The last meeting will be Oct. 1, though if necessary they will meet again Oct. 29.

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