By NORA HERTEL
PIERRE, S.D. (AP) _ More than 30 percent of South Dakota teaching positions posted this year remain open when they probably would have been filled by the end of May in previous years, according to a survey by the School Administrators of South Dakota.
The reasons behind the vacancy problem vary widely, according to different education professionals. Low teacher pay, retiring baby boomers, competition from other industries and a mismatch between what subject areas are needed and what teacher preparation programs focus on, all have an impact on declining numbers of teacher applicants.
South Dakota ranks last in the nation for teacher pay with an average of $39,018 compared with a national average of $56,103, according to the National Education Association.
Some districts struggle to fill teaching posts because of their rural location, South Dakota’s Education Secretary Melody Schopp said. Other industries in the state also struggle to fill open positions with qualified workers _ a problem addressed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard in his workforce summits this April through June. South Dakota’s unemployment rate was one of the lowest in the nation at 3.8 percent in May, according to government figures.
About half of the 62 open math positions still need to be filled and about a third of open English and special education positions are open, according to the survey completed by 125 out of 151 districts in the state.
“It’s getting later and later every year, because there are fewer and fewer (applicants),” said Joel Jorgenson, superintendent of the Hamlin School District.
Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, director of social policy and politics for the centrist think tank Third Way, said teacher prep programs are pumping out too many elementary school specialists and not enough of what’s needed such as special education, science and instructors in English as a Second Language.
She said it’s cheaper to train elementary teachers, because there are fewer additional expenses such as maintaining a laboratory.
Older teachers are retiring and young teachers tend to not stay in the field more than a few years, Erickson Hatalsky said .
But low funding and teacher pay are at the root of the problem, said School Administrators of South Dakota Executive Director Rob Monson.
State lawmakers gave school districts an extra $2.2 million in the 2014-15 budget designated for a raise of about $230 a year for teachers. This works out to an annual raise of less than 1 percent based on the average South Dakota teacher salary.
Joseph Graves, superintendent of the Mitchell School District said the governor previously proposed a workable solution to the problem and was thwarted by the education establishment.
Voters in 2012 defeated legislation that would have given bonuses to top teachers, phased out tenure and helped recruit candidates for critical teaching jobs. The opposition was led by the South Dakota Education Association, a teachers union. The state Legislative Planning Committee began a study this week on K-12 education including funding mechanisms.
Monson said superintendents and school boards are lowering their standards just to get a warm body in the classroom.
Jorgenson said he hasn’t had that problem yet.
“We’ve been fortunate, we’ve always been able to hire quality candidates, but the time is coming when I won’t be able to say that,” he said.