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Teacher openings complicate start of school year


South Dakota is desperate for more teachers and the number of open teaching positions is starting to raise some nerves because of a lack of applicants.

While the calendar says August and there are signs of summer everywhere, each passing day brings the school year that much closer.

You might think this is a moment when educators at the Rapid City Area Schools take a breath before things get going. But Superintendent Nicole Swigart can’t help but keep one eye on a ticking clock.

“It’s funny how 24 hours can really change the feeling about – oh my goodness, this is the month school starts," Swigart said. "It’s August, and Rapid City Area Schools has 40 certified teaching positions open. That, in and of itself, is very concerning.”

That’s 25 openings for classroom teachers and 15 special education positions. Across the state the need appears similar, most notably for elementary and special education positions. All that comes before mentioning hourly employee openings like paraprofessionals and bus drivers, which are also in high demand.

Swigart said students lose opportunities when there aren’t enough educators in the pool.

“We can’t just magically make certified teachers appear or people want to be paraprofessionals," Swigart said. "So, we have to make the best decisions with the resources we have, and thankfully we have great people who will step up and do that for us.”

There are many factors at play that lead to teacher shortages – including pay. Compared to other nearby states, South Dakota comes in last place for regional teacher salaries.

Swigart said while more money is an obvious incentive, she isn’t convinced pay is the only factor.

“People are leaving the profession because they don’t feel valued and respected, I think people are leaving the profession because other opportunities that weren’t available in the past are now available – I would say working from home for instance," Swigart said. "Would more money be nice – and it might be the answer in some cases – but South Dakota would have a long way to go before we reach a point where the dollars would be a determining factor.”

Rapid City is by no means alone as South Dakota schools large and small confront how to fill open teaching positions. Aberdeen Superintendent Becky Guffin said they are cutting class choices - not only electives, but core education options.

“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.”

To the south in Chamberlain, the challenge that comes with open positions is familiar. Superintendent Justin Zajic said going into his fourth year on the job, they’ve been hiring for as long as he can remember. That’s led him to some tough questions.

“Prior to this year, we’ve always entered the school year with at least two (teacher) openings, and you just can’t seem to break through that," Zajic said. "So, you sit there and go ‘Why aren’t people applying at Chamberlain? What’s the drawback and what’s going on?’”

But this year, a breakthrough.

“We are fully staffed so we’re ready to go," Zajic said. "My principals do a great job of finding the right people and saying ‘Hey, this is what we have to offer in Chamberlain.’ If you’re somebody who loves the outdoors, you can hunt and fish all year round in this community.”

Zajic agreed that providing educators with a sense of value is vital. He also stressed that a feeling of community is more essential in an era of heightened scrutiny on teachers and librarians. And Zajic said every day is a chance to go to bat for someone.

“Case in point: If they have a teacher saying ‘Hey, there’s this weird noise in my classroom, can you have somebody come and look at it in the next few days?’ And they go find it and fix it," Zajic said. "It’s those little things that everybody notices we’ve really been pushing to get done so that people really feel the district cares more about just me teaching the kids.”

Zajic cited a raise for teachers going into this school year as further raising morale in the district.

Some say the implications of a teacher shortage can have tangible effects on the quality of education. Sandra Waltman, government relations director with the state Educators Association, said increased student-teacher ratios and heavier workloads are just part of the deal for teachers these days.

Waltman said sometimes teachers can also be assigned to classrooms falling outside their specialty.

“That just adds to more stress on your teachers and principals," Waltman said. "It’s kind of a vicious circle when you can’t address the shortage of educators – its teachers, the support staff, principals – more people just have to retire or leave the profession.”

Waltman said considering the reality of the situation, it’s time to follow up on prior school investment efforts like 2015s Blue Ribbon Task Force,. the result of which boosted South Dakota teacher pay.

“We think the state really needs to step it up, probably in the next year or so, to look at ways we can incentivize teachers to go into the profession and to keep and retain those veteran teachers," Waltman said. "That requires investing in schools to make sure they have the resources to offer competitive salaries.”

Teacher pay in South Dakota ranks 47th nationwide, ahead of only West Virginia and Mississippi.

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