Lawmakers seek compromise in teacher pay accountability bill

Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight

A proposed compromise between bills to improve teacher pay in South Dakota is being considered by the House Education Committee this week in the Capitol.

Two bills were introduced earlier this legislative session that approached teacher pay differently. One bill introduced by the state Department of Education was too heavy handed, according to education lobbyists, while the other bill setting a minimum teacher salary didn’t address an impending deadline for the state board tasked with holding school districts accountable for raising teacher salaries.

The amendment passed by the committee Monday morning combines the two, said Sioux Falls Republican Rep. Tony Venhuizen. The committee plans to vote on the bill on Wednesday after hearing more testimony from supporters and opponents.

The amendment sets a “sweet spot” statewide minimum salary for teachers at $45,000 a year and raises that amount annually by the Legislature-approved increase in state aid toward education, Venhuizen said. For example, if the Legislature passes Gov. Kristi Noem’s proposed 4% increase in state aid, then the minimum teacher salary will increase to $46,800 the next school year.

It also requires school districts to reach an average teacher compensation goal each year specific to each district, which will align with the same legislative increases in state aid. Compensation for teachers includes benefits, such as insurance plans, paid time off and retirement plans.

The switch from average salary to average compensation gives school districts the flexibility to prioritize between salaries and benefits, Venhuizen explained, while the minimum salary is directed toward driving up average salary over time.

Lawmakers, state officials, education lobbyists and school district superintendents worked on the amendment for weeks before making the proposal to the committee.

“I think we’re getting close to something that’ll work,” Venhuizen told South Dakota Searchlight after the hearing.

Rep. Tony Venhuizen, R-Sioux Falls, speaks on the House floor on Feb. 7, 2024. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)
Rep. Tony Venhuizen, R-Sioux Falls, speaks on the state House floor on Feb. 7, 2024. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight) 

Thirty-seven school districts wouldn’t currently hit the intended minimum salary requirement, said Watertown Republican Rep. Hugh Bartels, who helped shape the compromise. But school districts would have until the 2027 school year to comply with the requirements. Thirteen of the schools are less than $1,000 away from the minimum salary goal.

“When we see state aid increases, we want to make sure that’s finding its way into teachers’ pockets,” Venhuizen said. “That can create management challenges in the districts, but it’s a message from the state that we expect them to prioritize teacher salaries.”

Watertown Superintendent Jeff Danielsen said the proposed amendment is the best version he’s seen so far, though he is concerned about how the changes would affect school districts with declining enrollment. Enrollment in the Watertown School District dropped 80 students this school year, which led to the district closing an elementary school and considering cutting teaching positions in the district.

Tying a minimum teacher salary or average teacher compensation to legislative state aid can be difficult for school districts with declining enrollment, he said. That’s because state aid is driven by enrollment, so individual school districts can lose state aid even when the Legislature improves a statewide increase.

“Educators aren’t shying away from accountability,” Danielsen said. “We just want it to be a well-rounded look at how we should be accountable and through a system that is attainable with the dollars we’re granted from the state and have at our disposal.”

The amendment does not include new funding for schools beyond the yearly increases in state aid. It sets a fiscal consequence for school districts that don’t reach their district-specific average compensation goal or the minimum teacher salary, with the Department of Education decreasing state funding to the district by $500 for each teacher employed by the district.

But it also allows the state Department of Education to work with school districts as they make necessary budget cuts and changes to comply with the law or apply for a waiver from the School Finance Accountability Board, which was created to track if state aid increases went toward teacher salaries. That state board expires this year, unless legislation extends the life of the board.

South Dakota Department of Education Secretary Joseph Graves speaks to the House Education Committee on Jan. 17, 2024. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)
South Dakota Department of Education Secretary Joseph Graves speaks to the state House Education Committee on Jan. 17, 2024. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight) 

This compromise, said state Department of Education Secretary Joseph Graves, will keep the promises made by the Blue Ribbon Task Force in 2016 while also respecting local control.

The Blue Ribbon Task Force legislation passed a half-percent state sales tax increase in 2016 to boost the state’s last-in-the-nation ranking for average teacher pay. That infusion raised average teacher pay by about 12% in its first year of implementation and bumped South Dakota from last to 47th, but the state has since fallen back to 49th in average teacher salaries (out of 51 states, due to the inclusion of Washington, D.C.).

“The Blue Ribbon Task Force focused on teachers. The money was given for teachers,” Graves told lawmakers. “… Had the education group said at the time, ‘We will give this money to teachers unless we need it for other employee groups or utility costs or something else,’ it’s my opinion the Blue Ribbon Task Force legislation would not have passed.”