South Dakota teacher pay slipping near national bottom

Even though South Dakota started to catch up with much of it’s neighbors thanks to the Blue Ribbon Task Force, that jump start has faded in recent years.
Published: Aug. 8, 2023 at 6:14 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - While South Dakota’s teacher shortage is looking slightly more optimistic compared to this time last year, the conversation over pay and benefits is still a driving force in keeping those jobs open.

MORE: Over 180 open teaching positions statewide, down from last year

Even though South Dakota started to catch up with much of it’s neighbors thanks to the Blue Ribbon Task Force and the subsequent legislation that followed in 2016, that jump start has faded in recent years. South Dakota teachers are again looking from the bottom up in the Midwest, ranking 49th nationally in average teacher salary.

The effects from the task force put South Dakota in competition with some neighboring states, namely Montana and North Dakota, with average teacher salaries. But in the following years, little came from the state legislature to continue that momentum and put South Dakota on a competitive edge.

“The investments in education kind of fell flat, as low as I think 0.3 percent in one of those years. It made it difficult for the school districts to really keep those salaries moving forward, in order to be competitive,” South Dakota Education Association Government Relations and Communications Director Sandra Waltman said.

This is the problem that the state’s Teacher Compensation Review Board is looking to find solutions to. Made up of legislators, South Dakota Department of Education staff and other educators, the board is currently in the middle of it’s biannual meetings. It’s first of three meeting was held on July 17, going through statistics and trends of where South Dakota sits in education spending and teacher salaries.

In that data, chiefly from the Department of Education and National Education Association, South Dakota is competitive with it’s starting average teacher salary of $41,170. That puts the state 28th overall in the nation. But where that edge tapers off is with veteran teachers, with neighboring states paying more on average. South Dakota’s overall average teacher salary is around $50,592, 49th overall in the nation and only beating out Mississippi and West Virigina.

It’s not just salaries that are causing a shortage of applicants. According to the NEA, South Dakota is #44 in the nation for per-student spending, at $11,408. When also accounting for compensation and buying power as well, South Dakota still ranks last to it’s neighbors.

Educator organizations in South Dakota said that the recent increase in education spending from the state legislature has been appreciated, and is helping the state’s school districts fight inflation and keep pay from slipping further. But those funding increases aren’t targeted just for salaries, as districts need to set their entire budgets from that funding.

“School districts have to take their operational funds out of any percentage too. So there’s a few more mouths to feed at that trough any time there in an increase,” Associated School Boards of South Dakota Executive Director Doug Wermedal said.

Along with trying to keep up with teacher salaries in other states, school districts are also competing with other industries.

“It comes down into making sure the schools have the resources and the funding that they need to offer those competitive wages. So that not only do we have teachers in every classroom, but we also have the support staff that are so vital in making sure that kids get the education they deserve,” Waltman said. “Time and time again, teachers will tell you that salary is important, but what really makes them wonder how much longer they can stay in the profession is how much support they get. So that’s why when we look at education funding and how much we invest in our schools and our students, we have to look at the whole picture.”

Waltman said though that there is some reason to have hope that things will be trending in the right direction. The previous two years, the state legislature increased it’s funding for state education, and the SDEA has reason to believe that they’ll look to take bigger steps in addressing education issues.

“Even during the last legislative session, we had lots of lawmakers talking about the stories they were hearing from their home districts about not being able to fill positions,” Waltman said.