PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota’s system for assuring that K-12 teachers get paid better, and that public school districts aren’t hoarding cash, seems to be working.
That was the conclusion Wednesday from the state School Finance Accountability Board.
Of 149 districts, all met the 2018-2019 targets for average teacher compensation except three: Elk Mountain, Hill City and Sanborn Central.
The state board recommended Sanborn Central receive a waiver rather than be penalized $10,000 in state aid.
State law calls for a $500 penalty for each full-time equivalent on a district’s teaching staff if the 2019 average compensation wasn’t higher than in 2017.
The vote was 3-2 for granting Sanborn Central a waiver. Supporting the waiver were Brandon Valley superintendent Jarod Larson, Mobridge-Pollock school board member Eric Stroeder and Huron superintendent Terry Nebelsick.
Favoring the penalty instead were state Finance Commissioner Liza Clark and Belle Fourche school district business manager Susan Proefrock.
Nebelsick will take the waiver recommendation to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Appropriations, whose 18 members will decide whether to accept it.
Elk Mountain and Hill City don’t receive state school aid, so they didn’t face punishment, according to Susan Woodmansey, a state Department of Education official.
The Legislature increased the state sales and use tax to 4.5 percent in 2016. It had been 4 percent for nearly a half-century. Lawmakers decided 63 percent of the additional revenue should be earmarked for raising teacher salaries, 34 percent would be used for reducing property taxes and three percent would boost salaries for instructors at the four public tech schools.
Woodmansey also reported Wednesday that three districts exceeded the Legislature’s limit on cash balances. They were Elk Mountain, Hoven and Agar-Blunt-Onida. None receives state aid, so they couldn’t be punished.
Woodmansey said department staff have provided training on the financial regulations at 13 events that various school district officials attended. She said the department’s bi-monthly conference calls with school districts’ business managers repeatedly included reminders. She said the business managers also received written summaries from the calls.
Sanborn Central superintendent Justin Siemsen and business manager Gayle Bechen explained the reasons for their district’s waiver request.
Sanborn Central’s average teacher compensation was $50,961 in 2017. It decreased to $50,733 in 2019. That meant a possible penalty.
Siemsen said the state department used 20 FTE while the district used 22; the difference was the district’s wrong decision to include a speech instructor and a preschool teacher. Extra-duty pay also was part of the district’s calculation, even though that wasn’t allowed under state law.
Siemsen said the district’s personnel realizes there is a need to be more thorough “We definitely can make mistakes,” he said. “It was a clear clerical calculation error.”
He added, “It was not intentional by any means.”
Siemsen said the Sanborn Central school board, after understanding the error, added $300 to each contract that will be ongoing and gave a 2.3 percent raise for the current school year. He said the board also added $300 to each step of the hiring schedule for teachers joining the system.
Siemsen said he didn’t participate in any of the training. Bechen said extracurricular pay wasn’t reflected in the 2017 data. There were other complications, such as retirements by three long-time teachers after the 2017-2018 school year.
The first decision for the state board was whether a violation occurred. That vote was 5-0 that it had.
State commissioner Clark said she understood where the error occurred and didn’t think it was intentional, but she noted the state department provided many trainings. Huron superintendent Nebelsick said there was “a complete admission” of a violation.
The next round of discussion — waiver or penalty — split the state board. Clark said the board’s tough positions the past two years led school districts to clearly change their behavior so that only one violation was on the agenda Wednesday.
Brandon Valley superintendent Larson said many of the past waivers were conditional: If a district fixed its problems, a penalty wouldn’t be enforced. Larson said Sanborn Central’s local board made “a good-faith effort” after learning of its problem.
Mobridge-Pollock board member Stroeder said Sanborn Central’s self-correction had satisfied him. “I don’t see that we’re deviating from what was done in the past,” Stroeder said.
But Belle Fourche business manager Proefrock said there were many training opportunities. Proefrock also said she compares data to ensure they match.
“I just know the effort we put into it, and we all should have understood it,” Proefrock said.
Chairman Nebelsick said the Legislature established the accountability board in 2016 so lawmakers could be assured South Dakota was staying on track with recommendations of then-Governor Dennis Daugaard’s teacher-salary task force from 2015.
Nebelsick said there was a trend of fewer and fewer schools being out of compliance. He said the board was created to consider recommending waivers and that led him to lean against recommending a penalty.
“I just don’t see any malice in what they did,” Nebelsick said. He also noted Siemsen was a first-year superintendent.
The motion to recommend a financial penalty for Sanborn Central failed 2-3, with Clark and Proefrock in favor.
The next motion, to recommend a waiver, reflecting the local board’s efforts to repair the situation. passed 3-2, with Stroeder, Larson and Nebelsick in favor.
Stroeder said the $10,000 penalty somewhat seemed “outlandish.” Larson said the error was very, very small and the error was corrected. But Larson also gently warned Siemsen: “I don’t want to see you next year.”
During the public-comment period afterward, Siemsen returned to the witness table. “I understand it was not an easy vote for any of you,” he said.