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‘Puts accountability in place’: Bill tying teacher pay to state funding passes House

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‘Puts accountability in place’: Bill tying teacher pay to state funding passes House

Feb 20, 2024 | 6:59 pm ET
By Makenzie Huber
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‘Puts accountability in place’: Bill tying teacher pay to state funding passes House
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Rep. Mike Stevens, R-Yankton, during the 2023 legislative session. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

A bill tying teacher pay to annual increases in state funding passed the state House of Representatives with a 58-9 vote Tuesday.

The bill, which now heads to a Senate committee, is a result of South Dakota drifting back down near the bottom in average teacher salary compared to the rest of the United States. The bill also aims to follow through on promises made to teachers when the Legislature passed a half-percentage-point increase in the state sales tax rate in 2016 to raise teacher salaries. Last year, legislators and Gov. Kristi Noem reduced the state sales tax rate from 4.5% to 4.2%.

Rep. Kristin Conzet, the newly appointed Republican lawmaker from Rapid City, served in the Legislature in the years leading up to the sales tax increase and supported the effort.

“Careers ended over that tax increase. People weren’t voted back in. We did what was best for our teachers,” Conzet said Tuesday on the House floor. “What did not happen and what the intent was of raising that sales tax was to go directly to teachers. It wasn’t to go to the administration; it wasn’t to backfill student losses. … This puts accountability in place. This puts teeth in what was supposed to be taken care of in that all-out battle six, seven years ago.”

The legislation would set a statewide minimum teacher salary of $45,000, beginning July 1, 2026. That minimum standard would increase each year by a percentage equal to the annual increase in state education funding approved by the Legislature and governor.

The bill would also require schools to raise their average teacher compensation — including pay and benefits — by percentages equal to annual increases in state funding. That requirement would begin with the 2025 fiscal year.

Beyond the regular annual increases in state education funding, schools would not receive additional state funding to comply with the mandates. Noem has recommended a 4% increase in state funding for the next state budget.

While nobody testified against the legislation during its committee hearing last week, several lobbyists representing the education community called it a work in progress.

Some lawmakers expressed concern on the House floor, saying that the bill needed more work to earn support from school district superintendents – especially those expecting enrollment decreases in the future, which could result in a decrease in state funding to those school districts.

Rep. Rocky Blare, R-Ideal, speaks on the House floor on Jan. 16, 2024. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)
Rep. Rocky Blare, R-Ideal, speaks on the House floor on Jan. 16, 2024. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

Rep. Rocky Blare, R-Winner, said he is worried for the future if other costs increase, such as insurance, gas prices or other staff salaries. He said the legislation would limit school districts’ ability to cover those needs. 

“I think this bill needs to be looked at, needs to be refined, needs to be better,” Blare said, as one of the few legislators to vote against the bill.

But Rep. Mike Stevens, R-Yankton, who worked with an informal group tasked with rewriting an earlier version of the bill, said it’s time to hold school districts accountable, even if it’s “not a perfect bill.”

The legislation, Stevens said, would force school districts to tackle declining enrollment without sacrificing teacher pay by combining classes, closing schools, consolidating schools, passing an opt out of property tax limitations, using reserves, reducing staff or reducing services.

“If we have to make hard decisions,” Stevens said, alluding to lawmakers making cuts to fit a balanced budget each year, “everybody else does too.”