By Austin Lammers, Syndee Conroy, and Kaleb Hedman
After six years of debate and failed propositions, the Rapid City Area School District has increased pay to its teachers and administration, taking effect at the beginning of this school year.
South Dakota ranks last in the nation for average teacher salary, which stands just above $39,000 per year. It also averages last in entry-level teacher salary, which is listed as an underwhelming $29,000 per year, according to the National Education Association. This raise for Rapid City’s teachers not only gives veteran teachers the money they should have been receiving since 2009, but also bumps entry-level pay to $32,000, benefiting both the low and middle levels on the teaching spectrum.
“This raise is well deserved and long overdue,” says Heather Sperlich, a science teacher at Central High School, “We teachers do our job because we love it, because we enjoy educating the kids. But at the same time, we still need to survive and provide for our kids at home. I’ve had only one raise in the nine years I’ve been teaching here. It’s a relief to know I can finally pay all the bills and expenses and still have something left over.”
Like many teachers, Sperlich contemplated moving to districts outside of Rapid City between the school years, where pay seems to be much higher. “This summer, I was in the interviewing process for a job teaching math at Douglas, which offered $6,000 more per year than I would’ve made at Central. The increase would’ve been helpful, but I backed out, not only because I wanted to stick to teaching science, but I’d also love to keep teaching my actual kids too. So, when I found out I’d be making around $1,000 more a month one week into the year, I was pretty thrilled about my luck, to say the least.”
Similarly, Brynn Birkeland, a math teacher at Central, said, “I come to my job because I like my job. I come because I like where I’m at. I feel grateful for it and it’s definitely time [for a raise]. However, if you pay a teacher like a surgeon, you’ll get more and more people who go into teaching for the wrong reasons.”
Teacher salaries are based on a pay scale that includes variables such as education, degrees, and experience. The more progress made towards the bottom right corner of the chart, the higher amount of money in the individual’s pocket.
The years of experience on the salary schedule, referred to as steps, is the norm of what teachers go by when determining a salary. For example, a teacher with a master’s degree at step five would be making $38,670 per year. This chart does not include incentives for extra-curriculars.
One teacher (who will remain nameless for the sake of privacy), had been stuck at the pay grade of step four, even though, technically, he had the experience and education to receive a level 11 salary. That means this raise brings a 22% increase in yearly income. Another went from step 3 to level 9, an $8,000 bump. Due to the lack of educational funds within our state, until this year our teachers were not able to receive the money they should have been getting. As a result of the raise, some are seeing close to $10,000 yearly increases at the blink of an eye because they are now where they’re supposed to be. (It can be noted too that the salaries of teachers with more than 20 years of experience in the district did not change, as these teachers had already moved to the highest steps on the pay scale.)
So, where is this money coming from?
Between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the district lost around 160 teachers to retirement and relocation, lots of them veterans. Obviously, a teacher who has been employed at a school for 15 years is going to make more than a teacher who has been there for two. The district replaced the plethora of veteran teachers with entry-level ones. It freed up money, which can now be given back to the teachers. In fact, the transition freed up $3 million.
Logistics between the district’s funds also plays a part in this move. The district has two main funds: the general fund and capital outlay. The general fund accounts for a number of things including buses and gas, utilities, supplies, and salaries. Capital outlay deals with big expenses and projects within the district. For example, Central’s new science and activities wings were funded by capital outlay.
Historically, the money in capital outlay could not be transferred to the general fund, or vice versa, but the state legislature recently allowed school districts to move money between the two accounts, though this allowance was temporary. Since the general fund has been running on empty for quite some time and the district was beginning to lose teachers, the Rapid City School Board chose to take advantage of this barrier’s disappearance, letting the general fund catch up and ultimately help pay our teachers.
Now, this may seem ideal, but risks are involved. For one, the barrier between the general and capital outlay funds was removed only temporarily, so the school district needs the state to make long term changes to its funding rules and sources. Further, the change also means money is being taken from building projects, such as the addition of Stevens’ science wing and South Middle School’s renovation. With such risks, some may question the decision to raise teachers’ salaries, but to relieve the pressure of the current issue, it’s the course of action that the school board has taken.
After the opt out failed in June, many teachers in the district accepted the fact that their salary was not going to change, that they had to continue earning almost $10,000 less than the state’s average salary. Thanks to some cooperation and sacrifice, this raise brings a little balance to instability within our schools. There still is much work to be done, but now Rapid City’s teaching core can finally take a sigh of relief.