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Rapid City Schools Struggle To Fill Teaching Spots

August 20, 2014, 7:46 PM by Kevin Woster

Rapid City Schools Struggle To Fill Teaching Spots

Like many school administrators in South Dakota, officials with Rapid City Public Schools struggled this year to find enough teachers.

That work continued yet this week, just days prior to the Monday opening of the school year in Rapid City, as a couple more teachers left district jobs.

Superintendent Tim Mitchell and other administrators filled all but a handful of the district's more than 1,000 teaching positions this year. But it wasn't easy and it took a lot longer than it used to.

And unlike some years, this teacher shortage wasn't caused by a higher enrollment numbers and the need for more staff.

"It was driven a bit differently, not in Rapid City by enrollment, but more by, just, not as many applicants as we've seen in the past and just a lot more movement in June, July and August by teachers in the state, or leaving the state, opening up positions that normally would have been filled," Mitchell said.

The departures continued this week, when a French teacher and a Spanish teacher left their jobs, further complicating preparations for the start of classes next week. Mitchell was also looking for a second-grade teacher, a high-school math teacher, a K-5 literacy specialist and to fill 2.5 positions in special ed counseling.

Going strictly by the numbers, the unfilled positions are a tiny fraction of the teaching force in the district. But it took a great deal of time and effort for administrators to fill many other empty positions. And Mitchell worries that it's a trend likely to continue.

Meanwhile, the district will post the teaching-job openings just like any others; while substitute teachers and temporary contracts help fill the gaps, for now.

Rapid City schools have long faced competition from better paying schools in other states. But more and more the competition comes from in-state schools, too.

Rapid City was ranked fourth in teacher pay in South Dakota two years ago, but has since dropped to 16th. Add in more teacher retirements and a general shortage of new teachers and the pay problem is especially worrisome, Mitchell says.

"We're on a major quest to try to figure out what's the best way to compensate teachers," Mitchell said.

He and the district's board of education have already begun work to find more creative ways to be more competitive on teacher pay.

"We really feel that we can do something differently," Mitchell said. "We're taking a look at different systems. We're looking at how we determine the base pay, and then how we determine base-pay progression."

In a state known nationally for its low teacher pay, Rapid City -- South Dakota's second-largest school district -- finds itself in the especially challenging position of having to compete with schools within the state, as well as those in states that generally pay more to teachers.

And Mitchell believes it will become more competitive.

"We're having the conversation about what compensation will look like in the future and taking a look at lots of hopefully innovative and creative ways of paying teachers that maybe other districts have capitalized on that we have not," Mitchell said. "We just want to take a look at what we can do to first of all recruit and then retain the teachers that we have."

For now though, he is focusing on a new school year and making sure all the teaching needs are covered, one way or another.

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