PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — “Everybody should have the right to either join or form a union — to argue and be able to engage in collective bargaining — it is recognized internationally as a basic human right.”

These are the words of South Dakota State Senator Reynold Nesiba (D-Sioux Falls), speaking in opposition to HB 1216, and act to remove collective bargaining for school district employees.

The bill, introduced by Freshman Rep. Bethany Soye (R-Sioux Falls), would eliminate the ability for teachers to collectively bargain (i.e. form or join a union and negotiate contracts), and would allow a school board to terminate a teacher’s employment contract without providing a reason or any further due process.

Soye did not respond to an emailed request from KELOLAND News to discuss the bill.

Asked to describe the bill, Nesiba had this to say: “My understanding is that right now in say, the Sioux Falls school district, that the food service workers, the custodians and the teachers each have contracts that allow them to engage in collective bargaining,” he said. “What this bill would do, is strip away that basic human right.”

In calling the ability to bargain collectively, Nesiba is invoking the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a United Nations declaration authored in part by the United States. “It’s one of the basic rights. It’s number 23 on the list,” he said.

Nesiba calls the bill an outrage.

“It was only a month ago when we had teachers on their knees on the ice, scrounging for dollar bills so they could raise some money for their classrooms,” he said. “Average teachers salary in South Dakota is ranked 50th of 51 states [and Washington D.C.]. We’ve kept our schools open — they’ve had very low rates of illness, and we’re going to thank our teachers by stripping them of these basic human rights — this bill is a complete outrage.”

The Sioux Falls School District (SFSD), however, supports the bill.

In a School Board document outlining the district positions on pending 2022 legislation, the official position written by SFSD Business Manager Todd Vik reads as follows.

The District supports this bill. School districts must have the ability to recruit and retain a well-qualified workforce. Specifically, school districts currently must work through existing bargaining units to increase the starting wages and salaries in order to adjust compensation to attract new prospective employees. Districts may be forced to increase salaries across an entire salary schedule in an effort to raise one level of needed increase. It may also be the case that salaries need to be adjusted in order to retain existing employees or incentivize difficult to fill positions such as career and technical education professionals who may easily find higher compensation within business and industry but are crucial to the continuation of programs that feed state and local workforce needs. Higher education had collective bargaining eliminated several years ago and no adverse effects have been noted with recruitment and retention.

SFSD position on HB 1216

School Board President Cynthia Mickelson clarified by email Monday that this was not the official position of the school board, as the board has not met since the bill has been introduced, but rather that it is an ‘administrative recommendation.’ Mickelson did not provide a response when asked her position on the bill as President of the Board.

Another opponent of the bill is the South Dakota Education Association (SDEA). SDEA President Loren Paul spoke with KELOLAND News about the bill.

“HB 1216 will not solve any of the pressing issues facing our schools,” said Paul. “It will only bring division and demoralize those who work in our schools, and ultimately hurt our students.”

Paul laid out the issues with the bill as the SDEA sees them.

“It takes away collective bargaining rights, it takes away due process rights, and this bill does nothing to help our teachers educate our students,” said Paul.

Simply put, this bill silences our teachers…

Loren paul, sdea

Paul says he thinks the advocates of this bill fail to understand the education process. “Every day our South Dakota educators enter their classroom and their classes with one goal in mind, and that’s to provide a great public education for every student. This bill does nothing to help them meet this promise.”

“Simply put,” says Paul “this bill silences our teachers and ties their hands when they need to be advocates for their students.”

Paul attributes this silencing effect to the provision of the bill taking away due process.

“Due process rights is that if you’re going to terminate an educator, you have to give a reason for doing that, and you’re trying to take that away,” said Paul. “Right now, educators feel a little empowered to stand up for their students and advocate for their students — but if you take away their due process rights; where they have no rights and can be terminated for disagreeing with one of their administrators, for no reason at all — they’re probably not going to be too inclined to advocate quite as strongly.”

“To me,” says Nesiba of the removal of due process “this makes it sound like they’re really trying to dismantle the tenure process — I also find that troubling.”

The end result of a bill like this, according to Paul, is fewer educators.

“This is just going to make it tougher for those going into the profession, and those thinking about leaving the profession,” he said. “This is going to be possibly the last straw that breaks the camel’s back — bottom-line, this is going to hurt the retention and recruitment of educators in our state.”

This is also a point highlighted by Nesiba.

South Dakota as a brain-drain problem,” he stated. “All of our educated people — or a majority, as we found in our Senate Bill 55 report — a majority of Board of Regents graduates actually work outside of the state.”

Nesiba says that giving people a collective bargaining voice is one way to keep them in state after graduation. “Stripping [collective bargaining] is the sort of thing that’s going to lead teachers to say, ‘you know what, I’ve put up with this. I can go and make more money — have collective bargaining — simply by driving over the border to Minnesota.'”

This bill would also not just apply to educators, points out Nesiba. “It would apply to all school district employees,” he said. “The custodians in Sioux Falls are organized; the food service workers are organized, as well as teachers. What they’re trying to do is strip away all protections — that’s what Republicans did at our tech schools, and Republicans did that again at our Board of Regents.”

Nesiba emphasized the fact that no Democrats voted in the past to remove collective bargaining rights from tech schools and BOR institutions. “It was only Republicans that were pushing to take away collective bargaining.”

Asked who benefits from a bill like HB 1216, Nesiba gave it some consideration.

“That’s a good question,” he said. “Perhaps a superintendent would benefit from a bill like that, that makes it look like they are able to cut costs, but ultimately I think hurts kids — I think it hurts teachers — I think it just hurts our district.”

KELOLAND News reached out to a teacher in the Sioux Falls School District who expressed a willingness to discuss the matter, but were told that they must first receive permission from the school district to speak with the media.

HB 1216 has had its first reading in the House on January 27, but has not yet been assigned to committee.