- Associated Press - Sunday, March 16, 2014

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - Carla Roehrich loves teaching. She just can’t afford to do it anymore.

Roehrich was a registered nurse for more than 20 years and then decided she’d like to teach. She started teaching health career classes at the Sioux Falls School District’s Career and Technical Education Academy in 2012, even knowing she’d cut her yearly salary almost in half by making the move.

“I think teaching and nursing is kind of natural because, as a nurse, you’re always teaching your patients how to do things, and it’s a really cool program (at CTE),” she said. “At the time, I realized I would make considerably less going to teacher pay, but I was also in a two-income situation.”

But after six months at CTE Academy, Roehrich’s living situation changed. She went from having two incomes to just one. She’s a single mom with three kids, and even with income from working part-time every third weekend as a nurse added to her teaching salary, she no longer can support her family. This summer, she’ll go back to nursing full-time.

“There was just no way I could support myself on a teacher’s pay,” she said. “I will make more money working full-time as an RN than I will working here full-time and continuing my almost part-time job there.”

Roehrich’s story is one many school districts in the state hear, and low teacher salaries has become an increasing problem, school district officials say.

It’s no secret that South Dakota’s teacher pay never has been at the top when comparing average teacher pay across the nation, but school officials say the state continues to fall further behind.

The most recent information from the National Center for Education Statistics shows the average pay for public elementary and secondary teachers in South Dakota as of last year is $39,580, dead last. The numbers are a far cry from the national average of $56,383.

A recent independent study done by the University of South Dakota, with collaboration from the Associated Schools Boards of South Dakota and School Administrators of South Dakota, showed more than 90 percent of the 130 superintendents who responded to the survey felt that attracting qualified applicants for open teaching positions within their districts has become more difficult during the past three school years.

Almost three-quarters of those superintendents said they felt low salary was the most important reason that potential applicants don’t apply for open teaching positions in their districts, followed by limited chances for salary increases and the location of the school.

Kaleb Bowman used to teach high school history and was a coach for the Groton Area School District but left a few years ago to take a job with North Central Farmers Elevator as a logistics manager, where his salary bumped up 20 percent.

“It’s kind of frustrating when I’m trying to raise a family, trying to have kids, and I looked at my wife and said, ‘If I’m going to stay teaching, I’m going to have to depend on you getting the raises, because I’m not going to get it.’ The raises we were getting teaching was hardly enough to pay for the extra gas it costs to drive to and from school,” he said. “If we wanted more kids, and more mouths to feed, it was just difficult.”

He said he misses teaching.

“It’s fun being able to interact with kids every day, work with them and see progress. Not only in the classroom, but coaching,” he said. “You go into teaching knowing you’re not going to make a ton of money. The thing you want though, is the raises to at least match the cost of living.”

Officials admit the cost of living can be considerably less in South Dakota compared to other states, but teacher salaries haven’t increased as quickly as other sectors. With higher costs for everything from insurance to fuel, the ability to be competitive with teacher pay has become tougher and tougher for school districts, especially considering teachers easily can go a few miles over the border to Iowa for an average teacher salary of more than $50,000 or to Wyoming, which has an average yearly teacher salary of more than $55,000.

The Sioux Falls School District, which is among the top highest paying school districts in the state, still has seen an increase in the number of open positions. In 2006, there were about 60 open teacher positions that weren’t filled because of retirement or new positions being created. Last year, there were 109, said Todd Vik, district business manager.

In 2006, the school district conducted a study with the Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce, which looked at teacher salaries in Sioux Falls and statewide compared to other industries and projected their growth through 2015. The study found that from 1990 to 1995, per-year increases to teacher salaries were close to other occupations, such as health care, manufacturing and finance. From 1995 to 2005, however, increases to teacher salaries slowed significantly compared to other occupations.

“Legislators do not say, ‘Teachers will be paid this,’” Vik said. “But because such a great part of school districts’ general fund revenue, which mainly goes to salaries, is derived from the state aid formula, you can essentially only give what you get. If you give more than that, you’re going to blow your budget up.”

At the Sanborn Central School District in Forestburg, which is between Mitchell and Huron, Linda Whitney is the superintendent, but also is the high school principal and the school counselor. She said teacher pay has become a growing concern.

“When you’re coming out of college with huge debts, and you have a chance to go into private industry and start for 30, 40 thousand, and with teaching, maybe 30, if you’re lucky, plus you have all your debts to pay off, I think it makes a big difference,” Whitney said.

A gradually rosier outlook has followed the recession of 2008-2009, so schools probably will get an increase of at least 3 percent over last year, what Gov. Dennis Daugaard is proposing. But administrators say they need 3.8 percent to begin reversing cutbacks they made after their budgets were slashed in 2011.

Rep. Jim Bolin, R-Canton, who serves on the Legislature’s appropriations committee, said a 3 percent increase in aid to schools has support from both Republicans and Democrats, but anything beyond that would be tough to come up with. It’s not impossible, but it will be difficult, he said.

“I tell people all the time, whether we like it or not, we have the lowest or almost the lowest state and local taxes in the country,” Bolin said. “Therefore, you’re not going to have nearly as much money to pay public employees of any kind, compared to other states. That’s just a mathematical reality.”

Whitney, of the Sanborn district, and a few other long-time teachers plan to retire in the next few years, but she said she fears there will be no one to take their places.

“We need to put in more dollars to raise teacher salaries. We’re already in crisis, but it’s going to be worse,” Whitney said. “I do think legislators are starting to hear us, that we are in a crisis situation, and our pool of teachers is not there, and it’s only going to get worse unless we do something about it. And we can’t wait too long.”


Information from: Argus Leader, https://www.argusleader.com

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