Teachers, schools main topics at Mitchell cracker barrelGov. Dennis Daugaard’s proposal to alter how South Dakota teachers are evaluated and paid was the prime topic for discussion at the first legislative cracker barrel of the year Saturday.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s proposal to alter how South Dakota teachers are evaluated and paid was the prime topic for discussion at the first legislative cracker barrel of the year Saturday.
District 20 state Sen. Mike Vehle and state Reps. Lance Carson and Rep. Tona Rozum, all Mitchell Republicans, spoke to a small audience. They all sounded optimistic that the reform plan will pass and would succeed.
“One thing about the governor, I will applaud him for taking the bull by the horns,” Vehle said.
He said there is a need for more math and science teachers and Daugaard is trying to find a way to entice more educators to enter those fields.
“I think we’re all saying, ‘We’re willing to pay more for better teachers,’ ” Vehle said.
Daugaard’s proposal to phase out tenure also has great potential, he said. The governor has made it clear he wants to reward excellent teachers, not just people who have put in several years in the classroom, Vehle said.
Dave Mitchell, a Dakota Wesleyan University professor and chairman of the Davison County Democratic Party, asked the legislators to consider establishing clear criteria on rating teachers for the new proposals.
“Let’s not have simplistic assessment tools,” Mitchell said.
He also urged them to approach the issue as a “joint problem,” not in a way to put people into divided camps. That would be helpful and ease the way for progress, Mitchell said. Such a collaborative system has worked well at DWU, he said.
“Let’s collectively find a way to resolve this problem rather than having a shoot-out,” Mitchell said.
Rozum said she felt Mitchell was “absolutely right.” She said Education Secretary Melody Schopp is making excellent points and wants to do the right thing for teachers, students and the state. The state is willing to invest millions in teachers, Rozum noted.
Rozum said Daugaard has “opened the door” to try to properly evaluate and improve teachers and education in South Dakota public schools. It’s a discussion worth having, she said.
Carson said based on what he has “heard in the hallway,” Daugaard’s plan has support from most legislators but they want to ensure the final bill is carefully drafted.
“I think there’s a lot of work that has to be done but the Department of Education and the Governor’s Office is taking that input,” he said.” I truly believe when the bill is in its formal phase, there will be a lot more control in it that people think.”
But Carson said he had one primary concern: “Where’s the money coming from and is it sustainable?”
Ione Klinger, a veteran Mitchell special education teacher, said she wondered if the cost of adding more testing, which will incur more expense, has been considered.
“You have to understand a school is a village,” Kilnger said. “It’s a whole village teaching together.”
Making teachers compete with each other for money flies in the face of that practice, she said.
Klinger said society must really value teachers.
Betty Widman, a retired Mitchell teacher, said she was concerned about funding for education and reductions that have been made in it in the past.
“What about the money that was taken from our teachers and school districts last year?” Widman said. “In this district alone we lost $1,000 a teacher.”
She said she was also concerned that Daugaard’s proposal, while it offers bonuses and other fiscal incentives for teachers, could be altered in the future by new legislators. In the end, she said, it comes down to one main issue: “We need to fund education,” she said.
Vehle said he believes in 2011, Daugaard was clearing the table during a tough economic time and while education funding is a priority, it’s difficult to make long-range pledges.
“The governor’s program was to push the reset button last year,” he said. “We’re in uncertain times right now.”
Rozum said school boards will have a great deal of control on the one-time money and a $2,000 recertification bonus for teachers has a lot of support.
She said Daugaard compared today to 40 years ago, when South Dakota has 28 percent fewer students than it did 40 years ago, 28 percent more teachers and other staff numbers have doubled while per-student spending has also doubled. But test scores have remained flat and South Dakota has been passed by other states in student scores. It’s time for a change, she said.
Still, the main issue in education is still the same, she said.
“It’s always been teacher pay,” said Rozum, who said she has worked as a teacher.
On other issues:
n Paul Widman, of Mitchell, asked the legislators to explain Daugaard’s South Dakota Workforce Initiatives, or South Dakota WINS.program and how it will impact older workers. He said AARP asked its members to look into the issue.
Rozum said South Dakota is losing business opportunities because of a lack of skilled workers.
She said Dusty Johnson, a Mitchell resident who is Daugaard’s chief of staff, said there are 10,000 open jobs in South Dakota. If people want to work, there is an opportunity, but trained workers are needed. She wasn’t sure how that would impact older workers.
The governor is trying to entice people to return to South Dakota, she said. Many will bring a spouse and children and add to the tax base, Rozum said, although Betty Widman noted that will also add to school costs.
Rozum said she feels it’s a good idea, since South Dakota needs more people willing to roll up their sleeves and get things done.
“I think the jobs are there, if you want to work,” she said.
Carson said such efforts have worked before.
When the state realized dentists in South Dakota were aging, incentives were put in place to create more dentists and it succeeded. Now, the focus is on other health-care workers, such as physician’s assistants.
“I think there are a lot of things going on,” Carson said.
He said online training can help workers develop their skills and make them more marketable.
n The legislators said they believed the Keystone XL pipeline, which President Obama announced Wednesday that he will block from being developed, is unlikely to come back on the table this year.
“I believe it probably dead at this point in time,” Carson said.
He called it “an unfortunate situation,” with reports of gas prices increasing to more than $4 per barrel by 2013. Carson said while there have been some spills, he doesn’t believe it’s a major concern and the corporations involved will ensure not much spills at the price they are getting for oil.
“I think it’s momentarily dead,” Rozum said. “I think it will come back to life.”
She said there is some talk of forging an alliance with other states to fight Obama’s decision but Rozum said she was unsure if anything would come from that.
“This really bothers me,” Vehle said.
He said he worked on the issue when he worked for Sen. Jim Abdnor in the 1970s.
“That oil is going to be taken from the ground whether we buy it or China buys it. Bottom line,” he said.
If it ends up in China, it will be processed to gas and will not return to the United States, Vehle said. If there is a Middle East crisis and America needs oil and gas, it may be left begging.
“We need to do something, if the pipes have to be thicker or you have to post a bigger bond, fine,” he said. “I think we’re making a huge, huge mistake.”
Vehle said it’s a question of doing business with a friend and ally like Canada or countries that are hostile to America.
n The legislators said the 2012 session will be held at a hectic pace.
“It’s going to be a short session,” Vehle said.
He said five days were dropped for budget cuts and two days were called off after the death of longtime Gov. Bill Janklow and all that came off the front end of the session. That means there is less time to get bills introduced and less time to talk with other legislators, or have bills redrafted by the Legislative Research Council.
Rozum said about 600 bills were drafted and only 90 have been dropped into the hopper.
“It’s really early because we don’t know what those bills are,” she said.
Most bills introduced so far are from state agencies, often seeking to clear up minor problems or technical issues, Rozum said.
Vehle said the state’s high infant mortality rate and the pine beetle infestation in Black Hills’ forests will be issues that are addressed in this session.
He said he has learned one thing over the years in Pierre.
“Government seems to do crisis management more,” Vehle said. “Businesses, we seem to plan ahead.”
The forum was held at the Mitchell Technical Institute Technology Center amphitheater on MTI’s south campus with Davison County Auditor Susan Kiepke serving as the moderator. Two dozen people attended on a cold, blustery morning.
The legislators thanked people for coming out on such an unpleasant morning, but Vehle said he has decided not to emphasize winter when he talks to people. He said in Minneapolis, it’s often colder and there is more snow.
“People don’t think anything of the cold up there,” he said. “I want them to think South Dakota isn’t that bad.”
The next cracker barrel is set for 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 11, at the same site. The Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce Governmental Affairs Committee sponsors the events.