S.D. lawmakers to debate teacher pay raises

During the pandemic, a handful of South Dakota school districts have given bonuses to teachers, but advocates say the state needs to live up to its promise to gradually boost educators' salaries each year.

South Dakota lawmakers begin the 2021 session next week. As the budget takes shape, how big a raise public school teachers could receive is expected to get plenty of debate.

Gov. Kristi Noem has proposed a pay hike of 2.4% for kindergarten-through-12th-grade teachers, more than the required 1.5% under state law. Loren Paul, president of the South Dakota Education Association, said the higher amount would be a big help since the state is having a hard time attracting educators.

“I think almost every school district is looking for educators of some type,” he said. “Whether they’re cooks, bus drivers, paras, teaching staff, every district in the state is still trying to fill positions.”

In 2016, South Dakota overhauled its school-funding formula, requiring pay hikes of either 3% or the inflation rate, whichever is less. However, a 2019 analysis found that the state was behind in reaching the goals outlined in the changes. That prompted some Democratic lawmakers to push for a 3% raise this year, while some Republicans say that might be too high, given other budget needs during the pandemic.

State Sen. Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls, is among Democrats calling for the state to approve a raise higher than what the governor is proposing. He said it’s a matter of priorities.

“Our teachers and state employees have been on the front lines of this pandemic,” he said. “Over the last several years, we’ve had pay raises that are below the rate of inflation.”

State Rep. Roger Chase, R-Huron, said he supports the pay raise proposed by the governor but it might be difficult to go beyond that.

“It would be nice to do 3%,” he said, “but we also have to keep in mind that there’s a lot of other people in South Dakota who need additional funding due to the COVID situation.”

Legislative leaders have said the issue will be examined by budget appropriators in the coming weeks, with a floor debate expected near the end of the session. According to the SDEA, the average teacher salary in South Dakota is slightly more than $48,000.

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