Teacher pay mandates approved by committee, no additional funding guaranteed

A proposed measure mandating public schools to boost teacher salaries without ensuring additional state funding was approved by a legislative committee in Pierre on Wednesday.

No opposition was voiced against the bill, although various lobbyists representing the education sector described it as a work in development.

“Although not flawless, this bill represents a compromise aimed at potentially attracting new teachers and retaining current experienced educators, thereby enhancing the quality of education for South Dakota students,” stated Dianna Miller, a lobbyist for the Large School Group.

The bill outlines a minimum statewide teacher salary of $45,000 effective July 1, 2026. This benchmark salary will increase annually based on the percentage growth in state education funding endorsed by the Legislature and the governor.

Additionally, schools will be mandated to raise their average teacher compensation, covering pay and benefits, proportionate to the yearly increments in state funding beginning from the 2025 fiscal year.

Gov. Kristi Noem, who has previously censured school districts for not aligning teacher pay increments with state funding hikes, proposes a 4% rise in education funding for the next state budget.

School districts failing to meet the bill’s criteria risk a $500 deduction per teacher from their state education funding. However, they have the option to seek a waiver and collaborate with the state School Finance Accountability Board to achieve compliance.

Given the dependency of the bill on future legislative decisions for increased state funding, a school lobbyist noted that the responsibility for teacher salaries will extend beyond local school boards. Schools receive funding not only from the state but also from federal sources and local property taxes.

“This signifies a shared responsibility with the Legislature going forward, as it will now be the Legislature’s duty to fund education,” emphasized Mitch Richter, a lobbyist for the South Dakota United Schools Association.

Richter suggested that some small rural schools with stabilized or declining student numbers might struggle to meet the bill’s stipulations. Funding for individual schools is linked to enrollment figures, so those experiencing declines may not fully benefit from state aid increases. Consequently, some of these rural schools may need to merge.

“A plan needs to be devised to support these districts, as they will require assistance,” Richter emphasized.

Miller highlighted possible challenges posed by the bill for larger schools facing declining enrollment, potentially necessitating the utilization of reserve funds to boost teacher salaries.

According to the National Education Association, South Dakota ranks 49th in average teacher pay (out of 51 including Washington, D.C.).

This ranking comes despite the implementation of a half-percentage-point increase in the state sales tax rate in 2016 to elevate teacher salaries. While the legislation injected additional funds into schools, elevating South Dakota in national teacher pay rankings, the state has slipped in these rankings since then. Last year, legislators and Gov. Noem reduced the state sales tax rate from 4.5% to 4.2%.

Joe Graves, head of the state Department of Education, views this year’s bill as a progression of the 2016 initiative. He refers to the bill as a “solid advancement in guaranteeing improved compensation for our state’s teachers.”

Graves outlined certain provisions within the bill to aid schools in meeting the criteria. For instance, an amendment added to the bill on Wednesday enables school boards to carry forward excess average compensation for future years.

The House Education Committee endorsed the bill by a vote of 11-2 for consideration by the House of Representatives. Rep. Phil Jensen, R-Rapid City, and Rep. Stephanie Sauder, R-Bryant, were the sole dissenting votes.

Jensen cited the struggles faced by Rapid City school officials in securing voter approval for bond financing, hindering the district’s facility maintenance.

“I fear this would pose significant challenges for the Rapid City schools and smaller schools alike,” Jensen expressed.

Sauder pointed out that the bill might force schools to eliminate teaching positions and consolidate classrooms.

“Before proceeding, we must address these issues that remain unresolved,” Sauder insisted.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been altered for clarity since its initial publication regarding the impact of 2016 legislation on teacher pay.

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