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SD teacher pay still lags behind neighboring states

Educators serve a crucial role in every community - but South Dakota teachers continue to be near the bottom of the national pay scale - only earning more than their peers in Mississippi and West Virginia. As a result, some have started taking a hard look at their paychecks.

The shortage of teachers in school districts, the competitiveness of their salaries and the benefits packages offered to them have real impact on schools – but your local superintendent isn’t at the helm of those decisions.

Aberdeen School District superintendent Becky Guffin said she sees how inadequate teacher pay has created gaps in student’s education.

“I can speak to math as an example – we no longer have a calculus class," Guffin said. "We no longer have a statistics class because we couldn’t find a teacher. We just scaled back the teaching that’s required for South Dakota graduation requirements. So, our kids have lost opportunities because we can’t find the staff.”

Guffin made those comments during a recent meeting of the state’s teacher compensation board. That group reviews pay for the states roughly 10,000 educators using data to compare salaries to the overall workforce.

The most recent findings show that despite the efforts of lawmakers, South Dakota teachers are behind their out-of-state peers in many brackets. Sen. Jim Bolin, R - Canton, is on the compensation board. He compared South Dakota’s current teacher pay situation to a track meet.

“We didn’t move up significantly in terms of number of states South Dakota passed, but we closed the gap significantly so if you’re in a two-mile race we’re not being lapped anymore," Bolin said. "We’re still finishing close to the bottom of the runners – but we are not being lapped.”

Bolin, a former educator, said pay matters if the state wants to recruit a meaningful number of teachers.

"You can’t live on nothing," Bolin said. "People are competing in education with other states, but they’re also competing with other businesses inside South Dakota who are perhaps paying more.”

Another lawmaker with concerns about the states’ lack of movement is Sen. Reynold Nesiba, D - Sioux Falls. Also on the compensation board, he said he’s frustrated South Dakota is still spinning its wheels.

“I just think the kind of places that make education a priority, that pay their teachers more, have enormous implications for economic development, economic prosperity that we have not considered as a state," Nesiba said. "We could have the highest paid teachers in the region if we wanted, it’s a matter of making it a priority. It’s a political decision.”

The compensation board’s meeting was held the same day Gov. Kristi Noem announced a state surplus of nearly $100 million.

Included in the data was a retrospective assessment of the state Blue Ribbon Task Force – which had previously evaluated teacher salaries. Mike Siebersma, who presented on behalf of Marzano Research, said while pay has consistently been on the rise, other states are making similar moves.

“After those investments we checked the data again and South Dakota was still 50th among teacher salaries. Good news of that is we weren’t 51st, there actually are 51 reported entities I believe it includes the District of Columbia – so we were 50th then," Siebersma said. "Because as we were doing this in South Dakota other states were doing the same thing, so all salaries were on the rise at that time.”

He described the data as the most comprehensive look to date.

“They set a target salary for 2016-17 of $48,500," Siebersma said. "That year, with the increases that were put in place, the actual average salary in South Dakota got up to $46,900. So, it did not quite meet the target from that point on. South Dakota was 51st up until there with the big investment moved up to 48th-47th and has sort of been hanging around 49-50th for the last couple of years.”

Since 2020, average teacher salary increases have exceeded targets set by the state legislature. However, when compared to its neighbors, South Dakota finishes last. That ties into another wrinkle Siebersma addressed – cost of living.

“Adjusted to the national level, rather than just being at just over $50,000 in 2022, the adjusted average teacher salary in South Dakota comes to about $56,000," Siebersma said. "Whereas neighboring states are anywhere from $58,000 all the way up to $66,000.”

There is heavy demand for some teaching specialties. The data found early elementary and special education are the highest-need areas in South Dakota. There are also shortages in language arts, fine arts and math. The data also show that eleven percent of teachers either changed positions at the end of the 2021-22 school year – or left the education field entirely.

Looking at the numbers, Siebersma said that pressure will only get worse.

“So, the best guess sort of projections are that we are going to be up about 195 teachers in three more years," Siebersma said. "Projections of our student population based on historic data, this year we have 137,468 students. That’s projected to go up by about 2,500 in the next three years.”

That roughly boils down to 830 new students each year who’ll need about 65 new teachers to stay at the target student-to-teacher ratio. The compensation board is scheduled to complete its report by the end of September and will make recommendations on teacher pay for state leaders to consider.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture