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SDPB Radio Coverage of the South Dakota Legislature. See all coverage and find links to audio and video streams live from the Capitol at www.sdpb.org/statehouse

Small Schools & The Student-Teacher Ratio

Kealey Bultena
Brookings / February 2015

State lawmakers are trying to figure out the best way to fund education in 151 different South Dakota school districts. And that might be especially difficult when it comes to small schools. Bills with the language of Governor Dennis Daugaard’s plan to increase teacher pay are not yet filed in Pierre. Right now lawmakers are working off of explanations from the governor’s State of the State speech and the Department of Education. Members of the legislature are determining what revamping the K-12 funding formula means for small schools and whether leaders are starting in the right place.

To analyze changes to the way South Dakota funds public schools, we have to understand how it works now. Local school districts and the state share the cost of education. That doesn’t change. Now the State divvies up taxpayer dollars based on enrollment. One student brings in about $4,800 to his or her district. Small schools get additional money for operations.

The governor’s proposal includes a shift from a per-student allocation to funding based on a student-to-teacher ratio. The small school adjustment goes away. Instead, large districts have a 15-to-1 ratio and the scale slides to a minimum of 12.5 students per teacher for the smallest schools.

State Senator Deb Soholt says the range accounts for inefficiencies that naturally happen in small schools.

"Right now, we are at an average – all of our schools: large schools, small schools, all 151 school districts – we’re at 14.1 on an average. And that is where we came to understand, through a mathematically formula, that with the small school factor in play, we would go fund 12.5 to 15 as the student/teacher ratio," Soholt says.

"The fear that some people have is that...there's going to be somewhat of a witch hunt." - Sen. Billie Sutton

Not everyone thinks the new plan should emerge from the current average of so many districts. State Senator Billie Sutton says he wants a ratio that benefits student outcomes based on research. He says 12.5 is well above most of South Dakota’s small schools. Sutton says districts with fewer than 200 students today have an average ratio of nine students per teacher.

"I think we need to at least start out with funding the student-to-teacher ratio that we have now. I don’t think we should start by raising it and then backing into it from there," Sutton says. "I think we should say, ‘You know what? We’re providing good education for our students right now. Let’s keep the same student-to-teacher ratio we have today."

Sutton says the problem with a plan that funds fewer positions – even though it offers schools more money – is that school districts are under pressure to make decisions in lose-lose circumstances: they fail their teachers or they fail lawmakers.

"The legislature’s going to be coming back and saying, ‘X school district, why didn’t you raise teacher salaries to $48,500?’ And that school district’s response is going to be, ‘Well, it was either raise that pay to $48,500 and cut teachers or keep our teachers that we currently have and pay our teachers a little bit less,'" Sutton says.

"That local school board and community will have decisions to make." - Sen. Deb Soholt

He says that doesn’t achieve the goal of elevating teacher wages to a competitive range.

Soholt says school leaders have options outside of eliminating teachers. She says they can collect more money at the local level or combine resources with neighboring communities to lower the cost of running the district.

"Let’s say that someone is running a 1:8 or a 1:6 or a 1:4. That local school board and community will have decisions to make. ‘What do we need to do if we want to raise the salaries, get the salaries of our teachers up, retain all of our teachers, then we’re going have to do some significant things on the expense side’ – which is the additional 31 percent overhead for all those things like your food service and your business contracting, your auditing of your books. ‘What could we do to cooperate with others to get that cost down?’" Soholt says.

The governor’s proposal includes opportunities such as eLearning courses that the state provides at no cost to districts. Soholt says lawmakers are not telling schools they must consolidate, which means local leaders need to determine how to prioritize teacher pay.

"Can you understand how there’s going to start to be a migration, if you will, of people choosing different things? Like right now we see the highest paid average salary is in the Douglas School District, and we already know that there are Rapid City teachers that strive to be in Douglas because the average salary is so much better there, so we will also start to see market pressure that’s going to happen over time," Soholt says.

Both Republicans and Democrats are mulling accountability measures for schools. They want to preserve local control while still achieving the goal of increasing teacher pay.

Credit SD Legislature
State Sen. Deb Soholt (R) lives in Sioux Falls, and State Sen. Billie Sutton (D) is from Burke.

Sutton says capping reserve funds is a simple way to ensure schools spend more money from the state. That’s part of the plan. So is analyzing how schools adjust teacher salaries. He says transparency in the way districts spend taxpayer dollars is important, but it comes with a catch.

"The fear that some people have is that, if a smaller school is disadvantaged by the formula and they can’t get to the average pay increase that the legislature says they should be at, that there’s going to be somewhat of a witch hunt after these schools when they’ve used all the resources they can to get to that target. There just wasn’t enough resources available," Sutton says.

Sutton says he believes the formula in front of lawmakers can work – with adjustments. He wants the lowest student-to-teacher ratio to cover the number of teachers schools employ now and says the state needs to infuse more money into the plan.

Both Sutton and Soholt stress that talking about ways to better fund education and help schools attract and retain quality teachers is a welcome discussion, and they agree that it appears all schools receive additional state funding under the governor’s plan. It’s based on the aim of raising the statewide average salary for a teacher to $48,500. That’s significantly higher than it is today. Whether the governor’s plan offers too much or not enough is now a decision for 105 state lawmakers.

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