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Legislators want to ensure teachers get extra money

PIERRE -- The Legislature's Joint Committee on Appropriations decided Monday that a letter of intent should be sent to all school districts throughout South Dakota explaining the extra 0.3 percent of state aid is meant for teacher salaries only.

The appropriators agreed without a formal vote; however, they aren't telling districts how to distribute the $2.2 million among the approximately 9,500 certified teachers.

"How they divide it up is up to them as a local school board," Sen. Larry Tidemann, R-Brookings, said.

"Different districts can do different things with it," Rep. Dan Dryden, R-Rapid City, said.

School districts will receive varying amounts based on their enrollments. The additional $2.2 million came on top of the 3 percent increase made in the per-student allocation.

The 3.3 percent total increase takes the allocation to $4,781.14 per student for the coming school year.

While each school district decides how to budget its per-student allocation, the additional 0.3 percent this year must go to teacher salaries. On average, that's approximately $225 per teacher.

The average teacher salary in South Dakota during the 2012-2013 school year was $39,018, according to the state Department of Education. The average teacher experience was 15 years.

Rep. Susan Wismer, D-Britton, said the letter of intent isn't needed.

"It's demeaning. We're not respecting our local school boards to make decisions," said Wismer, who's running for the Democratic nomination for governor.

Sen. Deb Peters strongly disagreed. Peters, R-Hartford, said "about a dozen" superintendents and school board members contacted her seeking clarification.

"That's why we need the letter of intent," Peters said. She chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee and the joint Senate-House panel.

The letter can be an important tool for superintendents to take to their school boards, said Sen. Bill Van Gerpen, R-Tyndall.

"It's only (0.3) percent, but it's meant a lot to them," Van Gerpen said.

The appropriations members informally agreed there should be a look at teacher salaries and school districts' available funding.

The extra $2.2 million was an important first step in improving teacher salaries, according to Dryden.

"It is my hope we continue that. How we're going to go about that, I don't know," he said.

Peters said the work should be on a broader basis than just the 18 appropriators. "Come up with a coordinated effort in the Legislature," she said.

South Dakota ranks last nationally in average teacher pay.

"I think we're going to be running against nothing short of a teacher shortage in the near future," Sen. Billie Sutton, D-Burke, said.

The appropriators held their discussion Monday morning after the Legislature adjourned the 2014 session. Various matters were considered for letters of intent regarding additional money that was budgeted.

The extra bump in school aid gathered the most attention.

Early in the 2014 legislative session, a majority of Republican senators without saying a word against it rejected a resolution from a special legislative committee that looked at teacher availability last year.

During the House discussion of the extra $2.2 million, House Democratic leader Bernie Hunhoff of Yankton said South Dakota would need to pay its teachers an additional $2,800 apiece to pull ahead of Mississippi into forty-ninth place among the 50 states.