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Mitchell getting $1.27 million for teacher pay boost

Nearly 200 Mitchell teachers are in for a treat. Mitchell School District Superintendent Joe Graves confirmed each full-time teacher will receive a $6,000 increase in their salary for the upcoming school year thanks to recent legislation meant to...

Nearly 200 Mitchell teachers are in for a treat.

Mitchell School District Superintendent Joe Graves confirmed each full-time teacher will receive a $6,000 increase in their salary for the upcoming school year thanks to recent legislation meant to boost pay for South Dakota's teachers. Prior to the legislation approved this winter by two-thirds of both the state House of Representatives and Senate, South Dakota's teacher salaries were the lowest in the nation.

Graves said approximately $1.27 million in additional funding, which comes from an altered funding formula supported by a half-cent sales tax increase, will help attract quality teachers to South Dakota.

"I was absolutely delighted," Graves said Monday about the district's ability to offer teachers the substantial salary bump. "This is exactly the kind of thing we needed to do in order to make the teaching profession more competitive and to draw more people into the field."

District Finance Officer Steve Culhane said the district's 196 full-time teachers will receive the funding increase, raising the average teacher salary in Mitchell to $50,700. Part-time employees, of which Culhane said there are typically between 7 and 10, will receive a prorated portion of the $6,000 raise determined by how many hours they work. For example, a teacher working half the time of a full-time teacher will receive an additional $3,000.

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A smaller portion of the new funding will be used for administrative raises and raises for classified staff, including maintenance workers and paraeducators. Graves said the district has reached out to the classified staff to negotiate and is awaiting a response.

While Graves expects the increase to help address the state's teacher shortage, he said it will ultimately benefit the district's students the most.

"The truth is, the most important thing to any kid's education is the teacher who's working with them," Graves said. "And as a result we've always tried, or for the last two decades, we've worked really hard to make sure that our teachers' compensation has been extremely competitive within the state."

The $6,000 raise for Mitchell teachers is the culmination of a years-long discussion regarding teacher pay that led Gov. Dennis Daugaard to create the "Blue Ribbon Task Force" in early 2015. The task force was made up of a group of educators from across the state who met periodically to address the nation's lowest teacher pay.

One year later, the state's legislators approved a sales tax increase to fund education funding. Local legislators Sen. Mike Vehle and Reps. Joshua Klumb and Tona Rozum all supported the funding increase.

Graves said it took a "perfect storm" of support from both the governor's office and the legislature to approve the funding increase.

"It was a very, very high hill to climb," Graves said about the final passage of the education funding legislation. "And was I surprised they climbed it, yes I was."

Pat Moller, a teacher at Second Chance High School and head coach of the Mitchell High School tennis team, said teachers were expecting an increase in salaries after the rollercoaster ride they endured during the 2016 legislative session.

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"That's an emotional time for educators to sit there and kind of have their future weigh in the balance like that," Moller said. "But it's a great move by the state."

Moller, a former Teacher of the Year in the state, was referencing the initial failure of the bill to help raise teacher pay in South Dakota from approximately $40,000 to $48,500. The bill would eventually become law after a procedural maneuver brought it back before the House of Representatives.

While Moller is appreciative of the increase and thanked the district's administrators for committing to teacher pay, he said Mitchell School District's salaries - which are above average compared to the rest of the state - come with a few sacrifices.

"You have to realize that we're more competitive in salaries because of some pretty deep cuts we've taken in other benefits and other areas," Moller said. "While the bump in pay is nice, and over the years our average teacher pay has been up, it has been at a cost to some other things."

Although Mitchell teachers received the fifth-highest average salaries in the state for the 2014-2015 school year at $45,228, which rose to $46,580 in 2015-2016, Moller said teachers have recently had to pay larger percentages of their insurance and have lost some personal days.

At the end of the day, Moller said this year's salary boost is encouraging.

"It's definitely positive," Moller said. "It's something that I think was a long time coming and I'm glad that the legislators recognized the value that teachers have."

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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“We see that when things happen in the coastal areas, a few years later, they start trending toward the Midwest,” said Rep. Ben Krohmer, serving his first term in the House.
“This is sensationalism at its finest, and it does not deserve to be heard in our state capitol,” Rep. Erin Healy, a Democrat and one of 10 votes against the bill in the 70-person chamber, said.