Sioux Falls, SD
It's a problem that's been looming for years, but now, many educators are saying it's finally here.
A teacher shortage in South Dakota has left many school districts scrambling to fill open positions just weeks before the start of the school year.
It's a harsh reality. Low teacher pay in South Dakota has candidates looking elsewhere for employment.
According to the National Education Association, on average, South Dakota's teachers were paid the lowest salaries in the country for 2013/2014. In nearby states like Wyoming, teachers were paid an average of $16,000 more each year. In Minnesota, about $14,000 more, and $12,000 more in Iowa.
These numbers are especially troublesome for school districts close to the state line.
"They don't want to leave South Dakota, but for their families they need to, and it breaks my heart because it's the children of South Dakota that suffer when we lose our teachers across the borders, or when we simply don't have a teacher in a classroom," South Dakota Education Association President Mary McCorkle said.
Mary McCorkle is President of the South Dakota Education Association. She says when these teachers leave the state, the problem lands on the kids.
"So the class sizes get larger, or the students lose opportunities for electives; that's a crisis for that child, and it plays out over and over in school districts," McCorkle said.
In Rapid City, Superintendent Tim Mitchell says he currently has 20 open teaching positions. One teacher even resigned August 6 - less than three weeks before the start of the school year.
"We had less than half of the positions open last year at this time as we do now, and also I know the principals are getting very nervous as there's no applicants to even talk to about some of these positions," Mitchell said.
If the district can't fill all of these positions before August 24th, Mitchell says they'll have to look at hiring full time substitutes, or even retired teachers. Another possibility is hiring clerical workers to assist special education teachers who may need to take on a larger caseload.
It's not much different in the Sioux Falls School District where there are currently 14 open positions - double from this same time last year.
"We had a math teacher position at one of our high schools where we had two applicants," Sioux Falls School District Human Resources Supervisor Becky Dorman said. "We have a science position open at a high school, and that's probably going to be about the same. We've had special ed. teaching positions open for awhile where we had no applicants."
Even though Deuel's School District has filled their positions, Superintendent Dean Christensen says the pool of applicants is rapidly shrinking.
"Years ago, I might've had 50 or maybe even 100 applicants for an elementary position," Christensen said. "I'm down to the point where if I get maybe 3 applicants for an elementary position, that's pretty good."
In order to provide a strong public education program for South Dakota children, educators agree something sustainable needs to happen.
"If I could change anything, it would be to be able to promote a compensation package that attracts teachers from all over the nation," Dorman said.
"We need to keep really high-trained quality teachers in front of kids, and to do that, we need to be competitive in markets to make sure that happens so that they don't leave our state, or they don't go to some other profession," Mitchell said.
"It can't be a Band-Aid fix, because in two years, three years, five years, we'll be back having the same conversation again," McCorkle said. "So we really need to look at a funding source that is going to be sustainable, and is going to make a difference long-term."
McCorkle says the state also needs to focus on attracting education students to our universities, and keeping them in the state. She says in order for this to happen, new teachers need to be valued, respected, and supported.
While this issue won't be fixed overnight, these educators still have hope for the future.
"It's kind of like a farmer, and you got hailed out this year, and you've got to hope for next year that it's going to be better," Christensen said.
"In the end, all any of us want is great public school for every child in South Dakota for every student," McCorkle said.
These are all issues that the South Dakota's education Blue Ribbon Task Force is discussing this summer. The next meeting is August 19th in Pierre. The group is made up of educators, lawmakers, and citizens, who plan to meet through October. Members plan to release a final report to Governor Daugaard this fall.
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