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The formula to teacher salary: A guide to educators' pay

If the state offers more education funding to school districts, Mitchell's superintendent has no doubt where that money will end up. Earlier this year, Gov. Dennis Daugaard announced the creation of the Blue Ribbon Task Force in an effort to sear...

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If the state offers more education funding to school districts, Mitchell's superintendent has no doubt where that money will end up.

Earlier this year, Gov. Dennis Daugaard announced the creation of the Blue Ribbon Task Force in an effort to search for a solution to end South Dakota's longstanding deficiencies in teacher salary, which ranks last in the nation.

Several months later, the task force returned with a set of recommendations revolving around a $75 million increase in education funding. For Mitchell School District Superintendent Joe Graves, any funding his district receives is likely to head straight to the pockets of Mitchell's teachers.

"The truth is there's such a shortage right now that everyone's going to put it into teacher compensation, because that's where you need it," Graves said.

Following the task force's recommendation in November, teacher pay is expected to be a major topic of discussion during South Dakota's upcoming legislative session. But how are teacher salaries currently funded?

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The Mitchell School District funds teacher salaries and benefits through its general fund, which makes up $17.593 million of the district's $27.055 million 2015-2016 budget. Salaries and benefit costs are the major expenditures within the general fund, at $14.928 million, or 85 percent of the fund.

While the other $10 million of the budget is directed toward the capital outlay fund for building improvements, the special education fund, pension fund and food service fund, more than half of the entire budget goes toward teacher pay. But Graves and Mitchell School Board President Deb Olson say the current funding is not enough.

Teacher pay is currently determined in part by state and local funding sources. The state of South Dakota assigns $4,876.76 per student and multiplies that by the average daily membership each district to calculate the basic core cost of education. With 2,746 students considered in the ADM, Mitchell School District's basic core cost is $13,391,582.96.

To reach that $13.391 million total, the state assigns tax levies based on assessed property valuations to calculate how much the district can raise through local property taxes. For this school year's budget, the state determined Mitchell could raise about $6.4 million, with the state contributing the additional $6.98 million. Along with various additional federal, state and local funding sources, the general fund supports the entirety of the district's teacher salaries.

Through this funding method, the state's average teacher pay is the nation's worst at $40,023 annually and South Dakota's teachers make about $16,000 less than the national average. Graves said this low average can make it difficult to attract quality teachers from surrounding states and impacts teacher retention.

"You can't attract people with salary, but you can send them away with salary," said Graves about teacher retention.

But Mitchell has done its best to keep average salaries high in the state. In 2014-2015, Mitchell ranked fifth in the state with an average salary of $45,228, a total that rose to $46,580 in 2015-16 for about 200 teachers.

"We try very hard to pay our teachers well because we want the best teachers," Graves said.

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Mitchell also contributes what Graves believes to be the highest percentage of the general fund any district can offer for salaries and benefits. Graves said the assumption is that salary expenditures lower than 80 percent are too low, while more than 85 percent makes it difficult to pay for things like heat and other utilities.

Even though the Mitchell School District pays its teachers some of the highest salaries in the state, Olson said it's not high enough.

Olson believes the district is doing what it can under the existing funding process to provide its teachers with salaries exceeding most districts in the state, but the base salary - which district Business Manager Steve Culhane said is about $36,000-is still too low. Without additional funding, Olson said the district could have trouble finding quality teachers in the future.

Issues don't end at teacher pay

If teacher pay is addressed, Graves said the Mitchell School District would likely split the additional funding evenly to each teacher. But other issues remain beyond a simple funding increase for teacher salaries.

Graves said the state's low teacher pay is so prominent that it will be a victory if a solution is approved, but it could create additional issues with funding for special education teachers.

Special education teacher salaries are funded through the special education fund rather than the general fund. With about 20 special education teachers, the fund is significantly smaller than the general fund. But special education instructors would still receive a salary bump if the state raised education funding, creating a potential funding hurdle for the district.

But Graves said any minor problem arising in the special education fund is something that will be left to school business manager and the superintendents to resolve.

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Another issue to address in the future could be Mitchell's classified staff. The classified workers, like maintenance workers and paraeducators, are hourly workers who would not see a wage increase through increased state aid.

With a workforce shortage in Mitchell, Graves noted the importance of maintaining quality hourly staff.

"Even if you have the best teachers, nobody wants to work in a building that's not clean," Graves said.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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