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Teacher pay increase boosts spirits and wallets of South Dakota educators

GARRETSON, S.D. -- She’s a former Minnesotan teaching in South Dakota.

For years, that would mean a lot less money in pay -- likely a whole bunch -- as South Dakota has ranked dead last in average teacher salaries at 51st, while Minnesota has ranked consistently in the top 10 along with other neighboring states Iowa and Wyoming. North Dakota has raised its pay, too, causing more consternation for teachers to the south.

However, it will be a little less painful for Garretson teacher Kelsey Buchholz and about 9,000 other South Dakota teachers after Gov. Dennis Daugaard coaxed state legislators earlier this year to approve a half-cent increase in the state sales tax to pay for a $67 million pay and benefit boost for teachers.

“I’ve been a classroom teacher for more than 30 years and I wondered if anything would ever happen,” said South Dakota Education Association President Mary McCorkle of Mobridge. “We were simply 51st year after year after year. I think we all finally decided that 51st wasn’t acceptable anymore and we didn’t want it to define who we are.”

More importantly, the state wanted to be more competitive in teacher pay with neighboring states as about 50 percent of teaching graduates from South Dakota universities have been leaving the state, McCorkle said, and other more experienced teachers have left or certainly were considering it when they could make from $8,000 to $18,000 more a year for the same job by crossing a state line.

Average teacher pay in South Dakota has been just over $40,000, while in its neighbor to the north the average is about $48,600.

Buchholz, who teaches English and journalism at the Garretson school which sits just two miles from Minnesota, said she has thought about moving.

However, her husband likes the area -- Garretson is only about 20 miles from Sioux Falls -- and they decided they wanted to raise their three young boys in the smaller community of about 1,200 people.

The school has 475 students and 33 teachers, with all grades together in one building in the center of town. About 30 students actually live in Minnesota.

Buchholz, a 2004 graduate of Barnesville (Minn.)  High School in northwest Minnesota with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, was actually making more money when she taught for four years at Washington High School in Sioux Falls.

The family situation won out over money, though, and she joined the Garretson staff three years ago and is happy with the decision -- and now feeling more appreciated.

“It’s just nice to finally see education move to the forefront,” she said about the pay raise. “I think we all felt like we were being neglected whether it was intentional or not.”

She said she has worked with many talented and dedicated teachers and it’s finally nice to see they are getting some support.

Buchholz also said it’s nice to know that the money for  teacher pay increases is not coming out of other areas within school districts

She knows some of her college friends have taken the journey across the state lines as one in Iowa makes about $10,000 more than her with the same degrees while another friend in Minnesota with a bachelor’s degree makes about $3,000 more.

Guy Johnson, the Garretson superintendent, lost one teacher to a Minnesota district last year and hopes the new pay package will enable him to keep his mixed staff of experience and youth that he believes does a really good job.

“We want to be able to pay enough to keep them here,” said Johnson, who called the pay increase legislation a “historic moment for South Dakota.”

“In my 16 years in education, I don’t think an increase in funding was ever a priority,” he said. In fact, with freezes and cuts in school aid from 2009 to 20011, his district had to go to taxpayers just last week to replenish its general fund with an “opt out” vote on property tax increase limits.

It was approved, another positive indicator for the Garretson school.

“We knew the day was coming when we were going to exhaust our reserves,” he said.

The teacher pay increase wasn’t really in Johnson’s sights, but he has high praise for the governor in leading the effort this year.

Garretson hasn’t seen a large exodus of teachers, however what he has seen is applicants for teaching jobs dropping considerably in the past few years. He said one job he posted had only six applicants when in previous years there might have been 25.

In Garretson, the starting teacher salary is $31,500 with an average of about $39,000.

Johnson is expecting the district will see an increase of about $200,000 for teacher pay and he knows that the intent of the new law is to boost pay and get the state averages up.

“The governor has been pretty vocal about that,” Johnson said.

However, what lies ahead now is that most districts have to negotiate new pay and benefit packages.

The South Dakota Department of Education has been traveling the state meeting with school officials to explain the rather complicated new school funding formula and to try to give district officials approximate teacher pay funding figures.

McCorkle said a “cooperative” and “hyper approach” between the department, the teacher association and schools has allowed some numbers to be available so contract talks can get rolling

She said most contracts are yet to be negotiated as some districts waited until a decision was made on teacher pay.

McCorkle realizes some districts may still have trouble finding or retaining teachers because of their location -- in some instances some of the most remote places in the U.S.

“They are still going to have their challenges,” she said.

For many districts, though, it’s going to get a little easier -- perhaps a lot easier.

While Johnson called the past few months historic, and Buchholz said it was a “good feeling,” McCorkle said it was hard to find one word.

But she did mention the word  “remarkable” for a state that has languished in a uncomplimentary statistic of “dead last” for years.

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