South Dakota lawmakers appear nearly united behind a call for higher teacher pay, but Black Hills area legislators told a crackerbarrel crowd that the deal will almost certainly include accountability measures to steer additional money into teachers' paychecks.
Rep. Scott Craig, R-Rapid City, said lawmakers are looking for ways to guarantee any additional education funding will not go into school savings accounts.
"We were told there's no way to mandate that the funds go to increased teacher pay. When we heard that, there was a bit of a shift in the room. ... It's been common practice, when the state has given increases the funds have gone into reserves," Craig said. "When funding is secured, somehow we will say it must be put towards teacher pay and nowhere else."
Craig's statement drew applause from the crowd of more than 100 gathered at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology campus on Jan. 23, 2016.
Polls have shown broad public support for state lawmakers to adopt a plan to increase teacher pay in South Dakota after Gov. Daugaard assembled a Blue Ribbon Task Force to develop a roadmap to get the state out of last place nationally. The issue is expected to dominate the 2016 state legislative session.
Rep. Jeff Partridge, R-Rapid City, said there is a strong desire to "get us out of last place" and for "accountability measures."
"How can we demand that teacher pay actually go up in this state?" Partridge asked. "We could give a two-year phase-in, and if a district doesn't raise teacher pay, that new money goes away. We would put the money into other school districts willing to pay teachers more."
Lawmakers expressed some frustration that the state K-12 funding formula ranks the state 37th or so nationally for the amount spent per-pupil but that locally elected school boards set teacher salaries in each school district.
"Only in South Dakota does 37 equal 51," quipped Rep. Brian Gosch, R-Rapid City, noting that South Dakota ranks dead last nationally at 51st for teacher pay. "For school reserves, we are at No. 1 in the nation."
Gosch acknowledged that it's unlikely the Legislature would find success if it tried to up-end the state's longstanding tradition of so-called "local control," in which local school boards run individual districts.
"We send them money. They want us to send more money. If we want to set some level of control on that, they scream foul and cry, 'local control,'" Gosch said.
Partridge outlined some proposals being discussed that would tie strings to increased K-12 funding without losing local control entirely.
- Money already allocated for buildings and equipment could be redirected towards teacher pay.
- Capping the amount schools can keep in savings accounts.
- Money already in the state's general fund budget could be redirected to K-12 funding.
- Raising new money, most likely through a 1/2 cent sales tax proposed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard.
- Driving efficiency through practices such as online course instruction among several schools, using one business manager for several districts and having smaller schools rely on large schools to handle payroll functions.
- Encouraging smaller schools to consolidate.
Rep. Mike Verchio, R-Hill City, said the issue has sparked conversations about South Dakota's overall tax structure, where a state income tax doesn't exist and has long spelled electoral death for politicians.
He said the state's sales tax exemptions -- where some things are taxed below the state's 4 percent rate or not taxed at all -- amount to nearly $1 billion annually.
"If we got rid of them all, we could take the tax off food and clothing and still make a bit more than $67 million," Verchio said, citing the amount the Blue Ribbon Task Force targeted to bring the average teacher salary to above $48,000.
Beyond that, a complete re-ordering the South Dakota's tax structure could be done, but is very unlikely, Verchio said.
"We could look at all of this in one big picture. How about if we funded the school system with an income tax, the counties with property tax, and state government with sales tax," he said. "The income tax would be very small to run schools, and property taxes would be cut."