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Empower Our Educators sets out to help Mitchell teachers supply their classrooms

New non-profit hopes to take edge off classroom costs

Various donated school supplies sit in the sixth-grade classroom of the Mitchell Middle School for the Harvey Helpers project. The project will send donations to a school in Texas impacted by Hurricane Harvey. (Sara Bertsch)
Empower Our Educators, a new nonprofit group started by Jeff Sand, is looking to help Mitchell School District teachers stock their classrooms with supplies.
Mitchell Republic File Photo
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MITCHELL — Part of Jeff Sand’s campaign platform while running for the Mitchell Board of Education earlier this year was, if elected, to donate his $1,200 board salary to help teachers in the Mitchell School District pay for classroom supplies.

Sand lost his bid for election on the board, but he’s trying to come through on that promise anyway.

To do that, he started Empower Our Educators, a 501 c-3 nonprofit organization dedicated to helping take the edge off teachers, burdened by low pay and an economy rife with high inflation, who are trying to keep their classrooms stocked with the essentials needed to provide a rich educational environment for their students.

“As a former teacher and husband to a current teacher in the Mitchell School District, I truly realize how much extra time, effort, energy and money is spent outside of school hours to help build a rapport with students and increase student achievement,” Sand told the Mitchell Republic recently. “It became even more evident as I talked to educators in the district when running for a seat on the Mitchell Board of Education.”

Though not an issue exclusive to South Dakota, increasing costs and a consistently low spot in the ranking for public school teacher pay has teachers in the state often struggling to meet everyday needs.

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Sand points out that an article on My ELearning World in August 2022 reported that an average educator will spend over $820 in out-of-pocket money on classroom supplies.

In terms of teacher pay, a 2021 report to Gov. Kristi Noem and the South Dakota Legislature by the South Dakota Teacher Compensation Review Board, the average South Dakota teacher salary in 2013-14 was $40,023 and ranked 51st among all states and the District of Columbia. By school year 2019-20, the average salary had risen to $48,984, an increase of 22.4% in six years.

However, after rising to a high of 47th in the national rankings in 2017-18, South Dakota’s teacher salary ranking dropped back to 50th. Adjusted for regional price parity, South Dakota teacher pay ranked 45th.

In December 2021 Noem proposed a pay increase of 6% to South Dakota teachers, with the full amount allotted to be determined by each individual school district. The Mitchell School District, which was contracted to increase salaries by 2% that year, increased that to the proposed 6% when the new funds were made available, according to Joe Graves, superintendent of the Mitchell School District.

Still, teachers find a need to put their own money into their classroom funds, Sand said.

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Jeff Sand
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

“Many of them spend a lot of their very own hard-earned money on basic classroom supplies, books and resources while never being reimbursed from the school district,” Sand said.

Advocates for higher teacher pay have worked for years to revamp the state funding formula to boost salaries, but costs for supplies have trended upwards, especially in recent years as economic conditions have pushed prices of everything from groceries to construction materials to new highs.

Due to this, some teachers have resorted to putting together wishlists and asking for donations personally or seeking out help on sites like DonorsChoose to fund classroom purchases or fund larger projects, something Sand feels shouldn’t be a part of their regular work responsibilities.

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Despite coming up short in his quest for a seat on the Mitchell Board of Education, Sand decided he still wanted to do something for educators in the district in that fundraising vein, but on a local level and without the additional fees and internet pricing of such sites.

“I made some calls to figure out how we can set up a 501 c-3 nonprofit organization that will not only help educators, but allow donors to make tax-deductible charitable donations. It was a learning curve, but as a lifelong learner, I am always up for a challenge of learning something new,” Sand said.

He and a handful of associates worked on putting together the organization over the summer and it formally came into existence in August. After that, fundraising efforts began in earnest, with the group reaching out to and establishing relationships with a number of donors in the greater Mitchell community who helped provide the important initial gifts.

Donated backpacks, pencils, pens and more can be dropped off starting next week

The organization is operated by Sand and a seven-member board that includes a teacher from each school in the district.

So far, donors have put in about $1,700 toward the effort in just a few months, and Sand said he hopes the organization is just getting started. One hundred percent of the donations goes toward educators.

The donated money can go toward whatever supplies a teacher sees fit to enhance their classroom environment, Sand said.

“Classroom supplies, teaching materials, food, snacks. Basically anything that a teacher needs to do their job at a high level,” Sand said.

The group also wants to do more for teacher recognition in general through their Educator of the Month Program. Sand noted that many school buildings in the Mitchell School District don’t have their own educator of the month recognitions, so they decided to establish their own program. Teachers in the district can be nominated for the honor, which carries with it a chance at additional funding and gift certificates from area businesses.

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Jeff Sand, second from the left, ran for a seat on the Mitchell Board of Education earlier this year. His campaign platform included a pledge to divert his board salary to help teachers with school supplies. He did not win a seat on the board at the election, but is now working to help Mitchell educators through Empower Our Educators, a nonprofit organization he started this summer. Here, the six Mitchell School Board candidates take questions during the candidate forum held at the Dakota Wesleyan University Sherman Center on May 17, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell

Those interested in being part of the Empower Our Educators network can reach out to the organization through their Facebook page or by emailing empoweroureducators@gmail.com for more information. Sand said monetary gifts are always appreciated, but the organization will also accept other donations, such as gift cards or actual school supplies.

At present the organization is only working with Mitchell School District teachers, but hopes to expand that to include other local Mitchell schools.

“As of right now, we are currently only serving educators in the Mitchell School District. As we grow this non-profit organization, we would love to include Mitchell Christian, St. John Paul II and surrounding schools,” Sand said.

So far, the response from the public has been strong with donations, and teachers that have benefitted from the program have been grateful for the lending hand, Sand said.

“(The response has) been awesome. Many of them appreciate Empower Our Educators and the work we are doing to not only support them but recognize and appreciate what they do on a daily basis,” Sand said. “Recognition should be more than a cake in the teacher’s lounge.”

The organization is still young, Sand said, and he hopes that as the word gets out and more potential donors become aware of their efforts, the more help will flow in to help local teachers.

“We are gaining steam and will continue to build our nonprofit through connecting with our community and helping educators. We will keep doing this now and into the future,” Sand said.

Tax-deductible donations can be made to Empower Our Educators by sending to P.O. Box 206, Mitchell, SD, 57301.

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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