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DOE mistakenly identifies two schools as violators of teacher pay regulations

Two districts were mistakenly grouped among nearly 40 South Dakota schools that face penalties for violating state-mandated "accountabilities" regarding teacher pay, state officials said Thursday.

School supply photo illustration. (Matt Gade/Republic)
School supply photo illustration. (Matt Gade/Republic)

Two districts were mistakenly grouped among nearly 40 South Dakota schools that face penalties for violating state-mandated "accountabilities" regarding teacher pay, state officials said Thursday.

The Hoven and Lead-Deadwood districts do not receive state aid, instead funding their districts with money generated locally. But both districts were identified by the DOE as districts that would face financial penalties for violating one or both accountabilities established to ensure schools are using the appropriate amount of funds generated by a half-percent sales tax increase in 2016.

The tax increase was intended to bolster the state's lowest-in-the-nation average teacher salary from $41,940 to a goal of $48,500.

Because the schools don't receive state funds, they will not face financial penalties. Potential penalties for other districts include the loss of thousands of dollars in state aid.

"They wouldn't be subject to the penalty, and I'm assuming they're on the list because everybody is run through the system to see if they made the accountability or not," said Mary Stadick Smith, spokesperson for the DOE. "If they don't receive state aid, they aren't susceptible to the penalties, which wasn't identified on the document."

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Stadick Smith called the incident an "oversight" late Thursday afternoon, and said a new list was posted Friday morning on the department's website identifying districts that don't receive state aid. Two other districts, Agar-Blunt-Onida and Elk Mountain will also be identified as districts that do not receive state aid.

Hoven Superintendent Bob Graham said he became aware of the issue Thursday morning when the district's school board president, Mark Weber, showed him a Daily Republic article identifying the school as one of six that didn't meet one of the state's accountability guidelines. The accountability the DOE said Hoven failed to meet states that a school district's average teacher compensation must increase by 85 percent of the percentage increase in state aid.

The other accountability established by lawmakers states that a school district's total teacher compensation must increase by 85 percent of the increase in state aid.

While some community members voiced concern with the discrepancy, Graham said he understands that mistakes happen, and he was told state officials are working to rectify the situation.

"(The DOE) put a lot of work into this and they make mistakes, too, so I'm not upset," Graham said. "We just shouldn't be included."

The DOE's original list identified 36 school districts that violated one or both accountabilities, but that figure was cut to 34 with Thursday's findings.

Pleased with progress

Despite more than 30 school districts violating the regulations, the DOE said it's not necessarily surprised.

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In its first year, legislators were aware there could be some hiccups as schools figure out how to allocate new money generated from a half-percent sales tax increase to support teacher salaries, according Stadick Smith.

And although lawmakers didn't identify how many schools they thought would violate the accountabilities, Stadick Smith said, an appeals process was implemented when the tax increase was passed.

"The presence of that section in the law indicates that legislators expected there would be districts that didn't make the accountabilities, and it allows for districts to explain their special circumstances before the accountability board makes a recommendation," Stadick Smith said. "As for a specific number, I don't know if that was ever a discussion."

The school districts that violated the accountabilities will have an opportunity to go before the School Finance Accountability Board to explain their situation on November 16. The Accountability Board will then decide whether to grant the district a waiver. If a waiver is not granted, the school could lose thousands of dollars in state aid.

Two school districts - Herreid and New Underwood - missed both accountabilities. Many districts breached the regulations by small percentages.

Stadick Smith did not indicate if she thought the Accountability Board would be generous with waivers, but said the opportunity "was built into the law when the Blue Ribbon package was passed, as lawmakers realized there would likely be situations in which districts had solid reasons for not making their targets."

Overall, officials with the South Dakota Department of Education have voiced pleasure with the state's success as a whole, noting that South Dakota increased its average teacher salary by 8.8 percent between fiscal years 2016 and 2017. While the state average sits at $45,625, nearly $3,000 behind the $48,500 goal, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard said he anticipates the upward trend to continue in the future.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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