Plan to boost teacher salaries pays off in S.D. schools

Plan to boost teacher salaries pays off in S.D. schools

(S.D.) Teachers in South Dakota, traditionally among the lowest paid educators in the country, have finally received a raise thanks to a half-percent increase in the sales tax approved last year.

Statewide, teacher salaries increased by 8.8 percent during the 2016-17 school year, with smaller districts making some of the most significant gains, according to data released this month by the South Dakota Department of Education.

“Raises varied in individual school districts, but I was pleased to see that the largest increases happened in some of our smallest districts,” Gov. Dennis Daugaard said in a statement. “Several districts, including Wall, Gayville-Volin and Mobridge-Pollock had increases of more than 20 percent, and Leola had an increase of nearly 30 percent.”

Teacher pay is notoriously uneven throughout the country. Teachers in Alaska, for instance, earn an average of nearly $78,000 a year while those in Mississippi receive just barely $42,000 annually, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are also differences based on the grades a teacher serves. In 2015–16 the most recent available data–elementary school teachers had a median income of $54,890 nationally, while high school teachers had a median income of just over $57,000. Educators qualified to teach students with disabilities had an approximately $4,000 higher median income across all grade levels.

In many parts of the country, officials at the school- and state-level have begun to offer higher than average starting salaries and signing bonuses in an effort to attract new teachers, or increase pay overall to keep teachers from leaving the field.

Two years ago, South Dakota’s average salaries for teachers were the lowest in the nation, according to Daugaard (federal data showed the state actually paid slightly more than both Mississippi and Oklahoma). In 2016, lawmakers implemented a half-percent sales tax increase, with the additional revenue to be directed toward teacher salaries.

The law also required that if a school district failed to direct at least 85 percent of those funds to teacher salaries it could forfeit 50 percent of the new money it received–although a waiver process was created to aid districts that fell short for various reasons.

According to Daugaard, approximately one-quarter of districts failed to meet at least one aspect of the accountability requirements. Many of those 36 districts were smaller districts which account for less than 11 percent of the teacher salaries paid, he noted, and many missed the target by a very small margin.

Edgemont School District only missed the mark on required spending on teacher salaries by 0.1 percent, for instance, while Pierre School District fell short by about 0.2 percent–and that was because a teacher passed away during the school year, which meant the school district spent a little less on salaries than planned. Another district, Herreid School District, missed the required average salary by slightly more than $100.

Overall, salaries increased by an average of almost 9 percent throughout the state. The salary increases, which took effect at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year, put the state more than halfway toward its goal of establishing an average salary of $48,500 for teachers.

In addition to increasing teacher pay, the package of bills passed last year aimed at addressing educator retention issues in the state also included funding for a statewide teacher mentorship program. Between that initiative and increased salaries, education officials have said teachers they’ve spoken to are more content than before.

“Beyond the data, I have heard anecdotally from a number of educators that the increase in teacher salaries has boosted morale,” Melody Schopp, secretary of education, said in a statement.