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Crisis In The Classroom

August 19, 2014, 10:05 PM by Hailey Higgins

Crisis In The Classroom

One thing is clear: Superintendents across the state of South Dakota know there's a major teacher shortage.

Those in the education field say they're finding it difficult to recruit and retain teachers at all grade levels.

Qualified teachers are hard to come by in the Mount Rushmore state. A survey of South Dakota administrators found more than 30 percent of teaching positions remained open at a time when schools traditionally have most positions filled.

"We are seeing a lot less applicants than we used to have. We are also seeing the quality of the applicants being a little lower than what they used to be," Rapid City Area School Superintendent Tim Mitchell said.

"We've seen a dramatic change, especially in the last three years," Hamlin Superintendent Joel Jorgensen said.

Jorgensen says some openings haven't had a single applicant.

"I'd say this is a state-wide problem as we've seen in the large schools, to the small schools," Mitchell said.

The reason behind the teacher shortage? Some blame low pay. 

South Dakota's average starting salary is $29,851. That is more than $6,000 less than the national average of $36,141. These statistics come from the Collective Bargaining/Member Advocacy's Teacher Salary Database. Just across the border, teachers can make thousands more.

"I'm not very far from Wyoming and we are hearing that some of our teachers are being offered $15,000 to $16,000 more per year for the same position by crossing the state line," Mitchell said.

Superintendents say fewer college students are graduating with degrees in education and veteran teachers are retiring.

"Education is one of the most important things. Teachers are the most important factor in that. The research shows that over and over. We have to continue to find ways to have the recruitment and the traction and the developing and the retaining of the best teachers in the classroom," Mitchell said.

"Teaching isn't about the money, it isn't about the paycheck," Democratic Rep. Paula Hawks said. "But it is your profession and we need to continue to remember that teachers are professionals and they deserve to be treated and paid as professionals."

Hawks is a former teacher and sits on the legislature's education committee.

"We need to start putting our money where our mouth is. Yes, we spend a lot of our budget on education but it's always the last thing to get funded and it is left with what we have left," Hawks said.

This year, the budget-writing committee increased education funding 3.3 percent, giving districts an extra $2.2 million after years of budget cuts during the recession. But Education Committee Chair Jacqueline Sly says money is just one of many approaches the state must take to increase the number of teachers.

"We are going to have to look at some things that districts haven't done and feel a little bit uncomfortable or trying because we need teachers for our students," Sly said.

Some potential solutions to increase the education budget failed in recent years. In 2012, Initiated Measure 15 aimed to raise the state sales tax by one cent -- generating an estimated $90 million. But 57% of South Dakota voters against it.

In that same year, voters also repealed the controversial House Bill 1234, which focused on merit pay for teachers.

'It didn't go into effect, but that didn't take away the problem," Sly said.

Right now, Rep. Sly says districts need to look at sharing staff through online learning or block scheduling.

In the long term, she recommends districts take notice of star students in high schools and, through mentoring and scholarships, urge them to return to the districts as teachers after college. For now, the current outlook is grim for district superintendents.

"We are going to have to work together to try to figure out a solution right now. But I see this only getting worse for the next few years as far as districts trying to fill positions," Jorgensen said.

This year, the state legislature awarded scholarships to 19 high-achieving college students who commit to teaching in South Dakota after graduation.

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