As I enter my final weeks as governor, many people are asking me to reflect on my time in office. I’m not a person who worries much about a “legacy.” I just hope that I have left things a little better than I found them. It is hard, though, not to reminisce about the events of the last eight years. One memory of which I’m very proud is the progress we made on teacher pay.
It certainly didn’t look like this would be possible when I came into office in 2011. At that time, South Dakota was still feeling the effects of the Great Recession. For two years, federal stimulus funds had delayed the need for budget cuts. As I took office, though, those funds had reached their end, and my first budget proposal included 10 percent cuts. In the end, a mechanism was found to ease the K-12 education cut to about eight percent.
Despite funding challenges, I knew that our state needed to do more to attract and retain good classroom teachers. In 2012, I announced the “Investing in Teachers” initiative, which became known as “House Bill 1234.” This proposal included merit-based bonuses for top teachers, along with pay incentives for teachers in high-need fields like mathematics and science. The plan proved to be controversial. Some educators were concerned about how they would be evaluated, They didn’t want to pit teachers against each other. They also felt that it wasn’t well-funded enough to have an impact. In the end, the plan narrowly passed the State Legislature, but was referred to the general election ballot and defeated.
I learned a valuable lesson from House Bill 1234. Although my intentions were good, I didn’t do enough to reach out and build support. To most South Dakotans, the announcement in my State of the State Address was a surprise. A surprise can make for good drama, but it isn’t always the recipe for success.
Following my reelection in 2014, I decided to try again. I was hearing from educators that the shortage of teachers was reaching a critical point. South Dakota had been last in the nation in teacher pay for decades – since the mid-1980s – and we were falling further behind. As the Baby Boomer generation retired, many vacancies were failing to attract a qualified applicant.
In 2015, I convened the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Teachers and Students. My charge to the task force was to seek public input, analyze the data, define conditions and offer solutions. Nothing should be taken off the table. The task force included legislators, state officials, educators and taxpayers. Task force members received input from thousands of South Dakotans and delved into the issue at several public meetings.
In the end, the task force issued a report that called for several changes to the school funding formula. The changes made the formula more favorable to small school districts and more equitable across all districts. It also protected property taxpayers from runaway increases in capital outlay tax levies.
The report also called for a sizable funding increase for K-12 schools, to be targeted at teacher salaries. Based on that report, I decided to propose a half-cent increase in the state sales tax to fund the proposal. I knew this would be controversial, and I respected the fact that some would not be able to support a tax increase. I believed, however, that the state had reached a point of no return – this was a problem we had to solve.
The Blue Ribbon package of bills passed the legislature with bipartisan, two-thirds majority support, and I signed them into law. Significant salary increases first took effect for the 2016-17 school year, and we made great progress. In one year, salaries had increased by an average of 8.8 percent. The Blue Ribbon legislation had set a target average salary of $48,500, and in one year we had moved more than halfway toward that goal. Some small districts enjoyed the largest increases – Wall, Gayville-Volin and Mobridge-Pollock all increased salaries by more than 20 percent, and Leola increased nearly 30 percent.
For the first time in more than 30 years, South Dakota is not last in the nation in average teacher salaries. Although some positions are still hard to fill, we are seeing more qualified applicants and fewer positions remain vacant.
We still have work to do – education funding should always be a major topic of debate – but I am proud of the progress we have made. We need good teachers to prepare our young people for the future, and we’ve sent a message that we value the important work that they do.
—By Gov. Dennis Daugaard