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South Dakota to see renewed debate over teacher pay

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Mike Moen

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(Greater Dakota News Service) As they head into winter break, South Dakota school districts and their teachers are in a waiting period to find out what future state funding looks like. 

A bump in aid is likely, but there's a lot to sort out in connecting it to educator salaries. 

In her recent budget address, Governor Kristi Noem floated a 4 percent increase in public school funding - while calling on districts to be more vigilant in using it to boost teacher pay, pointing to lagging educator salaries in the state. 

Loren Paul, president of the South Dakota Education Association, said the state is making gains in this area and welcomes the proposal. But he said going a little higher would be a bigger help. 

PROMO Map - South Dakota State Map - iStock - klenger

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"Last thing we want to do is have teacher pay go up, but they can't afford any of the supporting services in the school district like paras - who are teachers aides - bus drivers, all that kind of stuff," said Paul, "because those are all supports that make the school system work."

The union supports the idea of salary accountability if it avoids backing districts into a corner. Noem pledged to seek solutions in the upcoming legislative session. 

Despite its low ranking for teacher compensation, Paul said South Dakota is now a little more competitive with neighboring states. 

But he warned that educator shortages still plague districts, with declining enrollment and other issues affecting budgets.

Chamberlain Superintendent Justin Zajic said his district has fared well in balancing budget needs, including salaries, but acknowledged that other communities aren't as lucky. 

He said he respects the need for fiscal responsibility at the state level but adds going the extra mile isn't a bad idea.

"I do think there's always room for more," said Zajic. "You want to invest in your future and you want to invest in having a stable economy for the foreseeable future - 100, 200 years - and the way you do that is through funding your public schools."

South Dakota increased education funding by 6 percent two years ago, and 7 percent this past year. The South Dakota School Finance Accountability Board lists the current average teacher salary at just above $53,000

But union leaders note they're still awaiting data from the most recent funding boost to see how it influenced compensation and the ability to retain staff.