PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Schools have faced a spike in teacher vacancies for the coming year, the executive director for the Associated School Boards of South Dakota said Friday.

Many of the empty slots result from teachers deciding to take retirement after surviving the COVID-19 pandemic, Wade Pogany told the state Teacher Compensation Review Board.

Other openings reflect schools districts using their federal COVID-19 aid to create temporary slots.

Pogany said school districts seemed to know earlier than usual they would be needing help. The trend started in January and peaked at 551 in April, a number he said was “unnerving.” By comparison, the previous four Aprils saw vacancies in the 300s.

The teacher placement center that the organization runs had 223 openings Friday morning, 101 more than the similar day last year. “And we start school in less than a month,” Pogany said.

He didn’t want to sound like an alarmist — but: “If we see these kind of spikes next year, it will be a concern.”

The board’s chairman, Representative Scott Odenbach, said it would be good to have a differentiation between the vacancies caused by turnover and the vacancies resulting from new temporary positions.

“As we all know, it’s not always easy to go back to that baseline,” Odenbach said about the new slots.

Pogany said he’s advising school districts there is “a cliff” when they’re out of COVID-19 aid. He said some school officials have told him they plan to gradually absorb those short-term teachers back into their systems through attrition.

The meeting Friday was the first since 2018 for the teacher compensation members. They are following up on Governor Dennis Daugaard’s blue-ribbon task force from 2015 and the Legislature’s decision in 2016 to raise the state sales tax by one-half percent for teacher pay and property-tax relief.

The group heard Friday that South Dakota ranked 50th among the states and the District of Columbia for teacher pay during the 2019-2020 school year, according to the latest report from the National Education Association.

South Dakota’s average of $48,984 was better than only Mississippi at $46,843 and just behind Florida at $49,102.

Among neighboring states, the numbers were Iowa $58,184 (24), Minnesota $58,663 (23), Nebraska $55,267 (30), Wyoming $59,786 (20), Montana $52,135 (40) and North Dakota $53,525 (37).

New York was tops at $87,069.

Aberdeen superintendent Becky Guffin, who’s served on the task force as well as the 2018 and current review boards, said she wants to know whether the goal is to move the needle to get South Dakota out of 50th place. 

Senate Democrats leader Troy Heinert said the legislators on the panel know how difficult it is to increase spending on any topic and especially education. He suggested recommending that some factors within the school-aid formula be changed, such as including other certified school personnel. 

Representative Lana Greenfield, a retired teacher, said smaller-enrollment districts have used capital-outlay levies to pay for more things, including new buildings, since the changes took hold in 2016 and 2017. “It’s a desperate attempt to try to save a school in a community,” she said.

Greenfield also suggested using federal COVID aid to encourage paraprofessionals to get their teaching degrees.

Senator Jim Bolin warned “the big I word” — inflation — will reduce purchasing power of school employees, especially teachers, if it takes off. The Legislature since 1995 has limited increases in state aid to schools to the rate of inflation but no more than 3%.

Bolin, a retired educator, said that only twice in the past 25 years has inflation been higher. But the post-COVID economy in the United States is showing signs that inflation could exceed 3%. Pogany talked about inflation reaching the mid-4% range. Bolin said he expected many legislators would still oppose loosening the inflation limit.

 Senator David Wheeler, who spent more than eight years on the Huron school board, said the panel has to decide whether school districts overall have failed by repeatedly falling short of the statewide target salary, which is $52,600.29 for fiscal 2022.

Wheeler said the review has to look at whether to push school districts to spend more, or convince the Legislature to provide more state aid, or change the target to a lower amount.

Brian Maher, now the state universities’ executive director, was the Sioux Falls superintendent in 2015 when the task force delivered its report. He said the feeling that he and other task force members had then was, “If we’re off course, we can get back on course.” 

The group will meet at the end of August and again in September before delivering its report by Sept. 30.

Odenbach, who spent more three years on the Spearfish school board, said the panel could follow the example set in 2018 when that year’s group issued conclusions as part of its final report. One of them was, “In order to remain market-competitive, South Dakota should maintain and strive to improve its
national ranking in average teacher salaries and to reach or exceed the median of surrounding
states, when adjusted for regional price parities.”

Said Odenbach, “They (legislators) can run with it as they see fit, as part of the process.”

For the consultants’ report to the board, go here. For a snapshot of recent state aid to South Dakota schools, look here.