I heard a shocking sentence Tuesday during the State of the State Address given by Gov. Dennis Daugaard, "I am proposing a one-half percent increase in the state sales tax to help fund education."
As long as I have been covering education in South Dakota, these are words I never expected to hear.
Daugaard proposed raising $75 million for improving teachers’ pay, from an average of just more than $40,000 to $48,500, and an additional $40 million for cutting property taxes.
South Dakota’s state sales tax is currently set at 4 percent, where it’s been since 1969.
My first reaction when I heard him propose the increase was, well, shock, for lack of a better word. But the more I heard him talk about his proposal, the more questions I began to have. If I am seeing potential issues less than three hours after hearing his speech, imagine what school officials, educators, parents and, (most importantly) state legislators who will have to approve the increase are thinking?
I honestly feel like I am having a "Wizard of Oz" moment. You know, the one where they are off to see the Wizard in the Emerald City, believing in the big, exciting image of the Wizard. Then they arrive and look behind the curtain…
Let me say education reform is NEEDED in South Dakota and the changes proposed are a great first step. Our schools have been grossly underfunded at the state level for years. I applaud Gov. Daugaard for making education funding the key point of his address – and by that, this legislative session.
However, when you start to look at the proposals, it doesn’t feel to me that he is going far enough.
To be fair, my response is a visceral one. I have not read an official copy of the proposal nor seen all of the minute details that go along with the plan.
The governor’s suggestions come after reading the proposals put forth by the Blue Ribbon Task Force created last year. They found, not to my surprise, that South Dakota was falling further behind area states in education funding. As a state, we are ranked dead last in teacher pay. Because of that, we are facing a teacher shortage that, within five years, will see a predicted one applicant for each open position in the state.
The governor said Tuesday, "The teacher pipeline doesn’t fit the needs of the state’s school districts in five years."
At the centerpiece of the proposed formula is a targeted average teacher salary, $48,500, and a targeted student-to-teacher ratio based on the number of students in a school district.
Currently, there are 1,204 students enrolled in the Vermillion School District (VSD). Using the prosed ratio of 15:1, which is where VSD would fall on the scale, the target number of teachers for the district would be 80. For the 2015-2016 school year there are 90 teachers employed by the Vermillion School District, not counting Title and preschool teachers who are not included in this ratio.
That means the Vermillion School District would face a decision:
A. Cut 10 teachers and raise the salaries of the remaining 80 to meet the targeted $48,500 average; or,
B. Apply the funds across board to all of the teachers currently employed by the district and not meet the state average target.
The new formula would add additional dollars to meet only the total need established by the ratio. For anything above that number, it would be up to the school to determine how to fund it.
For schools that have been living on the edge and trimming programs to cut their general fund budgets more and more in the last few years, this proposal is once again going to force the local districts to be the bad guys.
While the new funding plan would be more transparent for both legislators and districts, it is still falling short of the needs of the schools across South Dakota.
I personally cannot name one district that can honestly look at the programming offered in its community and say, "I can cut these teachers and programs in order to give everyone else a raise."
So, the entire goal of the plan to raise teacher salaries enough that we are competitive with other states and can attract new teachers to our schools is doomed to fall short of its targeted goal. As a state, we will still be behind what other area states are able to pay their teachers and we will still be facing a teacher shortage.
In order to help minimize that foreseen shortage, Gov. Daugaard proposed an increase in funding of the E-learning program (online education) provided to the state’s schools. While I believe online education is better than nothing, I do not believe it should become the "new normal" for educating our children. There is no replacing the hands-on knowledge that teachers share with their students.
Gov. Daugaard also recommended a variety of financial changes for school districts, such as counting all "other" revenue – including traffic fines, bank taxes and wind taxes – as part of a local effort in calculating state aid; capping reserves in three years; restricting capital-outlay taxes; holding schools accountable on teacher pay; and encouraging consolidation of non-classroom responsibilities such as bookkeeping.
In the press conference following his address, Gov. Daugaard was asked if he felt he would be able to get this educational funding reform passed through the Legislature. He admitted it would be difficult, a hard road to climb that he expects to be a "very close vote."
Two main education groups in South Dakota, the School Administrators of South Dakota (SASD) and the Associated School Boards of South Dakota (ASBSD), have both come out in favor of the proposed formula changes, and insofar as they go, I agree, I like the path the governor is proposing.
I just wish it went further.
The Blue Ribbon Task Force told Gov. Daugaard in its final report "to be bold," when looking at changes for education.
I would say as a state, we are currently on the Yellow Brick Road. The first step, perhaps, hardest step for the Republican governor in an ultra-conservative state proposing a sales tax increase to fund education has been made. As a state, let’s encourage our legislators to go beyond the curtain and do what is right for our children: fund education at the levels it needs to be at in order to keep our state growing into the future.