SF school board chair says flexibility in CARES Act money needed to protect education

KELOLAND.com Original

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The chairwoman of the Sioux Falls School District School Board, Cynthia Mickelson, said when Gov. Kristi Noem mentions the possibility of cutting teachers or teacher salaries because of revenue shortfalls, she gets nervous.

Noem has said in several news conferences that state sales tax revenues will be dramatically reduced because of less consumer spending during the coronavirus pandemic. Noem has also said that she needs more flexibility with the $1.25 billion South Dakota received in CARES Act money, otherwise, she may need to make cuts to teachers and teacher salaries as well as nursing homes. South Dakota needs to use that federal money to replace some of the lost revenue, Noem said.

“I do agree with the Governor on the $1.25 billion coming from the federal government. It would be helpful for the state to use that to replace (lost) general fund revenue,” Mickelson said.

But Mickelson worries that education, in particular teachers, may get a disproportionate cut in funding or education many not receive enough money as it responds to COVID-19.

Average teacher pay in South Dakota has been lagging behind neighboring states, according to the National Center for Education Statistics and the National Education Association.

The Sioux Falls School District can’t afford to go backwards in terms of teacher pay or in programming, Mickelson said.

Local school districts set teacher salaries but they depend heavily on money from the state generated from .5% of the state’s 4.5% sales tax.

“It’s a tight rope,”Mickelson said.

She doesn’t envy Noem and state lawmakers who will have to make decisions in a special session in June.

But if the state doesn’t get more flexibility with the $1.25 billion CARES Act money and if education gets a disproportionate share of any cuts, “Do we have to go back to the citizens of Sioux Falls and tax them more…?” Mickelson asked.

The school district was making a positive return after several years of budget cuts linked to the Great Recession under then-Gov. Dennis Daugaard.

“I don’t want to cut our reading program,” Mickelson said of an example of what may be vulnerable if school districts get a sizeable cut in state funding.

COVID-19 is resulting in new challenges for school districts, she said.

There will be cost related to the mental, emotional and academic impacts of students being out of the classroom since mid-March, Mickelson said.

Students are also using Chromebooks in their homes and some of those won’t be in the best shape when they are returned, Mickelson said. The school district will need to replace damaged Chromebooks, she said.

Mickelson said one other reason she’s concerned about potential damaging cuts to education is that information shared with lawmakers earlier this year focused on teacher salary and increases in aid to schools. A copy of the information provided by Mickelson cites the National Education Association, the South Dakota Department of Education and the South Dakota Bureau of Finance and Management as sources for the information.

While Mickelson said the teacher pay in Sioux Falls is higher than many parts of the state, the baseline pay for teachers in South Dakota is $38,838, according to the South Dakota Department of Education.

Mickelson said the information provided to lawmakers was not complete, in part, because during the 2016 session, the state tied the aid formula to pension funding, which was not additional money for schools. The pension fund inflated the percentage increases given to schools, Mickelson said.

A copy of the information given to lawmakers says that state funding for education has outpaced inflation since 2011. The state ranks 32nd in funding per student and 47th in teacher pay, according to the information.

Mickelson said the Sioux Falls District prepared a rebuttal to that information. That rebuttal says that it is more accurate to say state funding has almost kept pace with the state index factor. The state index factor is 3% or the inflation rate, whichever is less.

The Education Law Center said in a 2019 report that South Dakota spends $13,252, which placed the state 25th in funding states but below the national average of $14,046. The study used a wage adjusted figure for per pupil funding. The state scored a C in per pupil funding but got an F for effort because it spends 3.03% of its Gross Domestic Product on education while the national average is 3.79%.

In 2016, South Dakota spent $9,176 per pupil, according to the Governing, a web-based resource that focuses on analysis and news on state and local government, which used Census data information.

The National Education Association ranked South Dakota 37th in education funding at $10,557 for 2017-2018, according to an April 2019 ranking report.

Pay for many state employees has increased at a greater percentage than teacher pay over the past 10 years and that must be considered in any budget discussions, Mickelson said.

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