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OTHER VOICES: South Dakota teacher pay and COVID money

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2021 Tri-State Governors' Conference

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks during the Tri-State Governors' Conference in South Sioux City on July 12.

The news that South Dakota is once again 50th in the country in teacher pay (ahead of only Mississippi) feels both terribly frustrating and completely unsurprising.

South Dakota had been dwelling near the bottom of this list for decades until the state approved a special one-time increase four years ago that finally allowed those wages to be lifted a bit from the depths. While this was a welcome turn of events, it was also recognized by many that this couldn’t be a one-off action, that it needed to be bolstered annually in order to keep the state’s teacher pay relatively attractive as well as competitive with surrounding states …

And here we are again.

Meanwhile, a report issued Monday by the School Financial Accountability Board (SFAB) found that 21 schools in the state are in excess of their cash reserve thresholds. However, there will be no penalty for this until 2023 while federal COVID-19 pandemic funds are available to the state. Area schools on this list include Irene-Wakonda, Scotland and Viborg-Hurley.

According to the Forum News Service, “In a normal year, such districts would need to apply for a waiver, which can be given as ‘the result of special circumstances,’ according to state statute. … But earlier this year, the SFAB approved a blanket waiver for all districts as three separate tranches of federal funding came into the state from Washington, D.C., to aid with costs associated with the coronavirus.”

Given the extraordinary circumstances, it’s understandable, and each of these districts likely faced demands that have led to this situation.

However, in a broader sense, it also draws attention to the fact that a lot of money has flowed into the state via pandemic funding. So, why couldn’t it be used to bolster teacher pay?

As you know, officials in Pierre often proclaim how well the South Dakota economy has come out of the pandemic. Recently, Gov. Kristi Noem announced a plan for the state to use nearly $1 billion in pandemic relief aid on infrastructure projects. (It’s not going toward expanding COVID vaccination efforts, which are lagging in this state and leave its residents open for new waves of misery, but that’s another issue for another time.)

Since COVID money is being used on infrastructure (which does need help), it wouldn’t be the worst time to point out that education is infrastructure, too, and our teachers are part of that.

Teachers and school districts had to go above and beyond the norm during the onset of the pandemic to educate children through distance learning. Not only that, educators also faced infection risks in schools where masking and vaccination were probably spotty at best. It was a lot to ask of teachers, and they came through. You could call that an extraordinary situation, too.

As such, it might be reasonable to use some of that pandemic money to help boost teacher pay again. Yes, it would be just a one-time fix — we’ve been down that road before — but if that’s what it takes to at least move the needle in the right direction every now and again, then so be it.

This is an opportunity that shouldn’t be overlooked, and hopefully, it will be on the table during the next legislative session.

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