Speaking of South Dakota wages, I continue to gather evidence that South Dakota could afford my moonshot plan to raise our average teacher pay $10,000, to 34th in the nation.

$10,000 may seem like an awful lot of cream on top of the teachers' pie, but this chart from the South Dakota Budget and Policy Institute says we could have done if we loved teachers as much as we love state employees:

SD Budget and Policy Institute: growth of state employee salaries vs teacher salaries, 2000–2013

(click to embiggen!)

South Dakota's average teacher salary: $39,580. South Dakota's hypothetical average teacher salary if we had funded salary increases at the same rate that Governors Janklow, Rounds, and Daugaard gave their employees: $49,189. Difference: $9,609.

Where there's a will, there's a way.

16 comments

The Bakken oil boom is making North Dakota rich! Too bad its universities are falling apart:

Students returning this week will attend classes in buildings without adequate ventilation or fire detection systems and in historic landmarks with buckling foundations. A space crunch is making it difficult for researchers to obtain grants and putting the accreditation of several programs at risk, administrators say.

“It’s embarrassing,” said North Dakota state Representative Kathy Hawken, a Republican from Fargo who sits on the higher education funding and budget committees. “We have a divided legislature on higher ed: Some think we put too much money into it and some think we don’t put enough. Buildings aren’t people, so we don’t put dollars there” [Jennifer Oldham, "North Dakota Universities Crumble as Oil Cash Pours In," Bloomberg, 2014.08.26].

Moving that money from petro-tax revenues to classrooms is complicated: Oldham reports that 30% of the money is locked up in a state trust fund until 2017, while another big chunk goes to municipalities. The $300 million the North Dakota Legislature gets faces competition from road needs. While the universities need $808 million in repairs, the state also needs $925 million to fix roads statewide over the next two years, including $485 million for repairs to industry-battered oil-patch roads.

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I've lived in Spearfish. I've seen Gillette. No one can convince me that Gillette is a nicer place to live and work and love than Spearfish.

But former Spearfish teacher Lynnae Fox disagrees. Wyoming's teacher pay just enticed her and several colleagues across the border:

Lynnae Fox is one of seven teachers from South Dakota who have been recruited to Gillette. Fox is a new fifth grade teacher at buffalo ridge elementary.

Fox spent the last four years teaching second grade in Spearfish, S.D., before taking her new position.

The Campbell County superintendent says a lot of out of state teachers come to Wyoming for the salary increase [Melea VanOstrand, "Wyoming Schools Recruit Teachers from South Dakota," KOTA-TV, 2014.08.27].

Just one school district pulls seven of South Dakota's good teachers in one year. That's brain drain isn't going to help our teacher shortage.

South Dakota's only hope for keeping teachers in the nation's teacher-pay gutter is stiff competition:

South Dakota teachers made up 38 percent of out-of-state applicants but the district only hired 2 percent of them. The district hired a total of 74 new staff members [VanOstrand, 2014.08.27].

The lesson for South Dakota: pay good money, and you can afford to be choosy about your teachers.

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Democrat Ellee Spawn is running for District 12 House. The first-time candidate took time Friday after Democratic Forum in Sioux Falls to tell me about teacher pay, health care, the minimum wage, and other issues that have propelled her into the public arena.

Ellee Spawn, Democrat for District 12 House, 2014.08.22

Ellee Spawn, Democrat for District 12 House, 2014.08.22

Spawn puts teacher pay at the top of her agenda. She says last place in salaries is unacceptable if we're serious about retaining the best and brightest teachers. Her own daughter can testify to this economic fact. Spawn's daughter studied elementary education at SDSU. She wants very much to stay and teach in South Dakota, but she has a five-year-old son and a student loan to pay off. South Dakota's teacher pay won't cut it, so she and her fiancé from Watertown are moving to Minneapolis.

Spawn sees a certain cognitive dissonance in South Dakota's inability to recognize the harm we do to ourselves with our low teacher pay. People don't like to face hard truths, says Spawn, but we have to deal with them.

Of course, we also have to find the money to deal with hard truths. Spawn doesn't jump to new taxes. Instead, she says a statewide effort to boost teacher pay should start with our budget surplus. next, says Spawn, we should stop giving out Benda bonuses. (Hmmm... put Ellee and Charlie Hoffman together, and we just might move the needle on teacher pay!)

Spawn currently manages the Sioux Falls office of M4 Roofing. She has worked in management and sales, served as a virtual assistant, and run her own restaurant. Spawn says her self-employment experience instilled in her a sense of self-accountability and a commitment to getting the job done.

Running a restaurant also shaped Spawn's view on the minimum wage. Spawn says she paid her servers $8 an hour, plus tips. Her kitchen staff got $11 to $12 an hour, and that was nine years ago. Spawn says paying more than other restaurants never hurt her business; it helped her draw and keep experienced and happy workers. It's a bad business practice to pay workers too little. Pay a living wage, says Spawn, and your employees feel less stress, pay more attention to customers, and steal less. Spawn recognizes that South Dakota's minimum-wage initiative, to raise our base wage to $8.50 an hour, is still somewhat shy of a living wage, but she supports it as step in the right direction.

Spawn shows further support for low-income workers with her support for Medicaid expansion. Governor Dennis Daugaard is leaving 48,000 South Dakotans (49,000, said this January 2013 study) without coverage because he'd rather dig in his heels on a specious objection to federal money, which, Spawn points out, already subsidizes 39.6% (yes, she had that number in her head) of the Governor's state budget. The Governor's refusal is "a slap in the face to hard-working South Dakotans."

Spawn says she jumped into the District 12 House race last winter because she was mad. She was sick of her District 12 Reps. Hal Wick and Manny Steele helping the state GOP embarrass South Dakota with their impractical and fringe-nibbling proposals to require everyone to carry a gun, get fluoride out of our water, hold a Constitutional convention, and promote anti-gay discrimination. A friend asked her, "Why don't you run?" Spawn replied, "Why don't I?"

And a candidacy was born. Rep. Steele was term-limited out, and Rep. Wick chose not to run for reëlection, so District 12 is already headed in the right direction. But Spawn wants to make sure her district gets some sensible, unembarrassing leadership. She and fellow Democrat Susan Randall are running against GOP challengers Arch Beal and Alex Jensen.

Spawn is assembling a noteworthy team for her legislative campaign. She just hired John Gossom as her campaign manager and Nebula Group USA as her strategy team. Nebula Group USA is also working for District 33 House candidate Robin Page. Nebula Group USA is run by Bajun Mavalwalla, who like Gossom was involved in the early stages of Corinna Robinson's Congressional campaign.

5 comments

When Charlie Hoffman and I got done riding four-wheeler around the prairie (and have I mentioned how big I smile when I say that phrase?), we went inside to talk politics. And oh, did we talk.

Rep. Charlie Hoffman (R-23/Eureka) discusses Pierre politics at his dining room table. (Photo by CAH, 2014.08.19)

Rep. Charlie Hoffman (R-23/Eureka) discusses Pierre politics at his dining room table. (Photo by CAH, 2014.08.19)

Charlie Hoffman has served three terms as a Republican Representative from District 23. He sat out this year's election, leaving incumbent Rep. Justin Cronin and new-Pierre-comer Michele (one L, just like Bachmann) Harrison to win the GOP primary and ascend without challenge to the State House.

Hoffman is yielding the House floor this year for a handful of personal reasons. He'd like to travel more with his wife, Survivor survivor and motivational speaker Holly Hoffman. Some business matters require his attention back at the ranch. And he has a new hunting dog that he wants to train and bond with properly.

But Hoffman makes his stepback sound like a break, not retirement. He's already looked ahead and seen 2016 as a good opportunity to get back into the House. Rep. Cronin will be termed out, leaving an open seat Charlie can seek without challenging a fellow Republican incumbent.

Hoffman's break appears to have some political motivation right alongside the personal. Hoffman expresses a notable disgust for several aspects of how things are running in Pierre right now. And he said these things to me, a liberal blogger, without the influence of scotch. "I'm a haystacker at heart," said Hoffman, "not a statesman, not a diplomat."

I should check that: did he say haystacker or haymaker? Here they come:

Self-Servers and Legislative Autonomy

Hoffman sees coming a tussle for majority leader in which he does not want to partake. He cites a Janklovian aphorism: "In every class of twenty-some new legislators, fifteen know they'll be governor someday." Hoffman says lots of legislators are serving their political ambitions and trying to put their names (Hoffman offers none) on the marquee. Hoffman would prefer to serve with and be one of the legislators who come to Pierre to serve their districts.

Hoffman says those marquee-seeking legislators create a major problem for the legislative branch. As majority whip, Hoffman says he has seen the Governor happily exploit those self-servers to encroach on the Legislature's proper autonomy. The night before each Legislative workweek begins, Hoffman says the Governor hosts a meeting for all of the GOP House and Senate leaders at the Governor's mansion (read: homefield advantage). The Governor's entire staff attends. The "conversation," says Hoffman, flows mostly one way, as the Governor informs the "leaders" of his plans and priorities for the week. The Governor does not inquire, says Hoffman, about the legislators' plans and priorities. And the GOP leaders, mostly concerned about their place in line, generally accept their weekly marching orders.

Hoffman says this one-way relationship is not how the balance of powers is supposed to work. The Legislature should act independently to bring forth different ideas and allow the best policies to rise via competition. One branch dictating the policy agenda means poorer policy. (What was that Charlie said about pastures with only one kind of grass?) Hoffman wants the climbers to quit climbing and recapture their autonomy and vision. Short of that, Hoffman wishes he could have the opportunity to serve under a Democratic Governor who would rekindle his comrades' commitment to the separation of powers.

(The weird subtext here: we could encourage Republican Charlie Hoffman to run for Legislature in 2016 by electing his Democratic House-mate Susan Wismer Governor this year. Charlie, want to help?)

Harmful Partisanship

Hoffman also expresses annoyance with partisan politics. He says the South Dakota GOP has damaged itself and its candidates by allowing Tea Party agitators to pull the party further right. Local radicals may have gotten a kick out of the SDGOP's impeach-Obama resolution, but recall that such absurd radicalism has boosted Democratic fundraising. Hoffman looks beyond our borders to add that such honyockerism may damage the chances of the national party choosing John Thune for Vice-President in 2016.

Partisanship can damage policy along with party. Hoffman says that, without Medicaid expansion, county governments face higher indigent-care costs, and hospitals either eat losses or pass them on to the rest of us. Expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act would erase those costs, says Hoffman. Permit me to remind you that, as Rep. Wismer said Wednesday, the only reason Governor Daugaard seems to have for not expanding Medicaid is partisan ideology.

Future Plans: Raise Teacher Pay!

If circumstances draw Hoffman back to the House, he says he may spend his entire term working on one project: raising teacher pay. He suggests starting by diverting 10% of all gambling revenue (that cut would be over $10 million) to a teacher-pay trust fund. When the fund accrues enough interest, start writing checks, once a year, to every public K-12 teacher in South Dakota.

Our quick calculations suggest this plan might initially place just $500 extra in each teacher's pocket, only a small step toward beating lowly Mississippi, but one must start somewhere. And Hoffman agrees that raising pay will boost the labor pool and ease the teacher shortage.

But wait: gambling revenues currently support property tax relief. Would Hoffman really support taking away that relief? Yes. Instead of handing out pennies per acre, the state could hand that 10% of gambling revenues to the state Investment Council to generate a far larger return.

Production Tax

If landowners feel harmed by the reduction of gambling-revenue tax relief, Hoffman will make it up to them by getting rid of the agriculture productivity tax. Hoffman says this bastardization of the property tax is even worse than a straight income tax. This tax, which based on the predicted agricultural production value of land instead of its actual productivity or sale price, deters farmers from raising prairie grass and drives hyper-production of only a few high-priced crops. Farmers who switch from corn and beans to grass this year will still pay tax based on what they could have made raising corn for the next eight years. Even farmers who stick with corn will suffer as corn prices drop: they'll makes three to four dollars per bushel this year, but the county will tax them for the next couple years as if their land were seven- or eight-dollar-a-bushel corn. Hoffman says the Legislature needs to change the productivity tax to something fairer.

*   *   *

I asked Hoffman if he worried that my reporting the above comments might harm his chances of returning to the House. He paused to think, but pretty quickly said nope. If I'm reading him right (and stop me if you think I'm letting my hopes and the joy of riding four-wheeler all afternoon confound my judgment), Hoffman is professing a commitment to a less partisan, more pragmatic, and more independent Legislature. Let's see if Charlie and District 23 share that commitment in 2016.

Bonus "Did You Know?": One of the photos in Hoffman's home office shows a man riding down Main Street (I forgot to ask where) atop the backseat of a red convertible with a placard on the door reading "Hoffman for Governor."Charlie said that's his dad Leroy Hoffman, who ran against Bill Janklow in the GOP gubernatorial primary in 1978.

Leroy Hoffman also sang opera. He built the house in which Charlie and Holly have raised their family with a beautiful vaulted ceiling for his singing. In the 1960's Hoffman sang well enough to tour Europe professionally. Charlie lived in Europe with his dad for two years during that portion of Leroy's career.

But if you're looking for records, you have to search George Hoffman, not Leroy.

"What," I asked. "Leroy not operatic enough?"

"Yup," said Charlie.

31 comments

So I'm sitting on the curb in Mission and a gal named for an Italian artist walks up and talks to me about eradicating institutional racism in South Dakota.

These things happen. Pull up a seat with us on the curb.

Morandi Hurst, teacher, Spring Creek Elementary

Morandi Hurst, teacher, Spring Creek Elementary (Photo from M. Hurst)

Morandi Hurst grew up in Rapid City. She majored in history at Vassar. She missed the Plains and wanted to benefit her home state and her community, so after graduating in 2010, she came home. But since she wasn't into welding, jobs were scarce. With regret but needing to pay the bills, she got ready to leave for a job in L.A.

But a day before decamping, she got a call from a friend working for Teach for America at Spring Creek Elementary, by the Little White River on the Rosebud Reservation. Spring Creek needed a teacher's aide (paraprofessional, we write impressively on résumés). Wanna come? her friend asked.

Hurst saddled up, headed east, and fell in love. Spring Creek, she says, is the most beautiful place in the world (and this from a gal who grew up in the Black Hills). Spring Creek kids and parents, she found, are delightful. She worked alongside Kate Haswell in a mixed grade 1–8 classroom and decided she wanted to be a teacher.

Ah, but adding teaching certification to her degree would take a year and cost about $10,000, and lovely as they are, the trees of the Little White River canyon grow neither money nor time.

Fortunately, Hurst found a quicker, cheaper option. The friend who recruited her was one of three Teach for America teachers at Spring Creek. All three inspired Hurst to join TFA, which would pay for her certification and put her in a classroom right away. It wasn't easy: Hurst had to attend a five-week boot camp in Phoenix teaching children in summer school (talk about learning on the fly) and commit to cramming all the contact hours required for teaching certification around full-time work during the school year, but she did it.

Spring Creek didn't have an opening during her first year in TFA. She thus taught and obtained her certification at Littleburg Elementary (still in the heavily Native American Todd County district), then transferred to Spring Creek for her second year in TFA.

TFA recruits serve two years. But Hurst, like a third of TFA's alumni since 1990, remains in the classroom. She is starting her third year as a teacher at Spring Creek Elementary, this time around teaching grade 6–8 reading and math. And like every proud teacher, she rattles her Spring Creek students' accomplishments: four students on full scholarships to Phillips Exeter Academy summer school; an eighth grader studying earth science through the University of California-Irvine on full scholarship; another eighth grader winning a national poetry award; three Spring Creekers winning the statewide science fair; half the students enrolling in Saturday enrichment classes taught by teachers volunteering their time.... All of those accomplishments and more, Hurst says, belie the bad reputation that too many South Dakotans give to Indian students and schools.

Hurst loves her work and her school. But why do that work here, in South Dakota? She says she believes we all should serve our home, and her passion is here.

And then, as we sit on the curb in Mission, she says we need to fight this fight.

What fight? I ask.

The fight for "educational equity for Native American students," says Hurst. That means giving her Spring Creek kids to have the same opportunities as white kids. That means seeing Indian kids graduate at the same rate as white kids. That means making institutional racism no more.

And how do you erase institutional racism in your classroom? I ask.

I don't, says Hurst. I live through my students, help them learn, and help them build a strong sense of self and community so they can fight that fight themselves.

So that's how we eradicate institutional racism. Funny the things we learn on the curb in Mission.

21 comments

James Curran chose to work in South Dakota over living in California and pursuing a Ph.D. He says that's "the best decision I ever made."

That's part of why I like him.

Curran is executive director for Teach for America in South Dakota. TFA works like a domestic, education-focused Peace Corps, recruiting new graduates from a variety of academic disciplines and universities nationwide to teach in underserved schools with lots of low-income students. South Dakota's branch of TFA, based in Mission, currently oversees 76 young teachers placed in Indian schools around the state.

After teaching in Phoenix as part of Teach for America, Curran came to South Dakota in 2007 to coach teachers in the South Dakota office of Teach for America, based in Mission. He returned to Wisconsin to help family in 2009, then returned to Mission in 2011 to work as TFA's executive director.

I've given Curran a bit of a hard time in past blog coverage, saying that filling classrooms with a stream of rookie teachers who rotate out every two years is a suboptimal solution for gaps in South Dakota's K-12 schools. But Curran says with conviction that he's seen the difference that TFA can make in schools.

That difference comes not from any TFA secret sauce. It comes, says Curran, from a belief system that we can find in many teachers and many school systems and that all can adopt. Central to TFA's beliefs is the notion, based on plenty of experience and evidence, that low-income kids have as much potential as higher-income kids and can even outperform their advantaged peers in the right conditions.

Creating those right conditions means coaching teachers to develop strong vision and leadership skills. Teaching is inherently a leadership activity: every teacher leads children in conversations and practice. TFA says leadership includes setting high goals for oneself, one's students, one's school, and one's community. TFA teachers root their goals in what families and the community want, which means TFA teachers must work hard to find out what those folks want. That's a huge exercise in organization and leadership, far beyond simply plopping someone into a classroom to keep order from eight to four.

Curran says fostering leadership among these rookie teachers has an immediate impact in the classroom. He sees his teachers come back from Pine Ridge and Standing Rock and elsewhere with great stories of student achievement. But he also sees what bringing out that achievement does to those teachers. Another of TFA's core beliefs is that seeing these kids achieve, low-income kids too often dismissed by legislators and grim statistics, changes the lives of their teachers. Whether those TFA teachers stay in education (and many do, says Curran: a third of TFA alumni since 1990 are still in the classroom) or go on to leadership roles in business, public policy, what have you, they become lifelong advocates for educational equity. They don't see reservation schools as lost causes. They believe that kids at Sisseton and Little Wound can knock the test-score socks off kids at Harrisburg and Spearfish. They believe that we can engage low-income parents and community members as allies in education reform and leaders in their own right.

TFA is teaching kids, and teaching them well, but it is also building leaders among its teaching corps and among the parents and community members whom they engage to take ownership of their schools and demand better.

*    *    *

To support TFA's efforts in South Dakota, Curran spends about half of his time as exec working on outreach and fundraising. Those efforts included successfully lobbying for two one-time appropriations from the South Dakota Legislature of $250,000. That money, appropriated in 2012 and 2013, was match money, an incentive to draw more of the private contributions on which TFA relies to pay for intensive and ongoing training for its new teachers. (Remember, school districts pay TFA teacher salaries as they would any other teacher salary, plus a recruitment fee, as districts would pay any employment agency that would help them fill openings.)

The state's willingness to match dollars resonated with donors more strongly and quickly than Curran hoped, and TFA returned to the Legislature in 2014 to seek continued support. Unfortunately, even though the state admits it cannot fill the gaps TFA fills in reservation schools, even though TFA appears to be working well for South Dakota, the Legislature chose not to continue its investment in TFA.

That retreat doesn't shut TFA's doors. It just means TFA has less money and can't expand as much as Curran had hoped. While TFA had fewer applicants this year than last, Curran says he never has trouble finding recruits who want to come to South Dakota, and with the Legislature's funding, he could easily have placed 45 new teachers here (45 young people working hard, doing good, buying stuff, paying sales tax!) instead of the 36 in this year's teaching cohort.

Curran has come to Mission to serve children, parents, and communities. His organization is doing work that the State of South Dakota says it can't. He is helping change attitudes toward Indian kids and schools. He is helping build a growing corps of teachers and leaders (that phrase should be redundant) with an ongoing commitment to work and policies that support every child's right to a fair and free education.

That's the bigger part of why I like him.

6 comments
Rochelle Hagel (left), Democratic candidate for District 33 House, and Pam Stillman-Rokusek, campaign volunteer, at Rickstock, Piedmont, South Dakota, 2014.08.16

Rochelle Hagel (left), Democratic candidate for District 33 House, and Pam Stillman-Rokusek, campaign media wrangler (funny, I didn't feel wrangled!), at Rickstock, Piedmont, South Dakota, 2014.08.16

Democrat Rochelle Hagel is running for District 33 House. Really running: the reporter turned salesperson very smartly showed up at Rickstock in Piedmont yesterday with a team of her yellow-shirted campaign volunteers to show support for U.S. Senate candidate Rick Weiland and to work the crowd herself for some coattails.

Hagel is working to light a fire under a local electorate that has very low turnout. She asks voters what issues matter to them and is surprised by how many say that aren't really sure. Among those who do have some issues at the top of mind, many talk in terms laid out by national partisan pundits. Hagel says she tries to lead conversations that lead people to think of themselves first as South Dakotans with shared needs specific to South Dakota. "We all hold the same things dear," says Hagel, things like our children, peace of mind, and doing our duties as citizens and workers. She says she gets positive if sometimes surprised responses to that effort to identify and mobilize around common ground.

Hagel resists telling voters which issues to prioritize, but she says legislators must focus on education. (She'd better say that: her husband teaches at Rapid City Central, and her sister, Rep. Paula Hawks, used to teach at West Central in Hartford.) Even if there is no extra money available for the state budget—and Hagel isn't convinced there is no extra money—Hagel says we need to get creative and compensate teachers better.

For example, Hagel notes that her family's health insurance through her husband's coverage at school has increased premiums every year. She says South Dakota families face an average premium of $10,000 a year. (We didn't have the Web with us during our conversation, but this morning I find this Kaiser Family Foundation chart indicating that the average total cost for family health insurance in South Dakota, combining employer and employee contributions, is $14,999.) Hagel suggests we could save as much as $4,000 per policy by insuring every teacher in the state through a single, non-profit health policy. (Hey—could this be a vote for the Mike Myers CO-OP plan?)

We could then plunge those savings right back into teachers' paychecks. "It's our money!" says Hagel says of the tax dollars going into school insurance plans and teacher salaries. Shifting our money from insurance payments to teachers' pockets would pour a larger chunk of that cash right back into local businesses. Hagel would like to reframe our political discussions to rouse more respect for teachers and education in themselves, but if Republicans can't shed their economic development blinders, she's ready to justify better pay for teachers on economic grounds as well.

Hagel also says South Dakota needs more pork—no, not more handouts from Washington (that's Mike Rounds's gig). Hagel grew up on a farm. She fed little pigs by hand. She recalls how her family called pigs "mortgage lifters": a sow would produce a couple litters a year, the pigs would put on meat fast, and with just a couple sows in the barn, a farmer could sell that pork faster than corn to boost the family income.

Hagel says the change in the past generation of corporate packer ownership of livestock turns farmers restrains that "mortgage-lifting" potential from keeping a few animals on the side of a mostly-crop operation, reducing livestock growers to corporate employees instead of independent entrepreneurs. Hagel doesn't jump to regulate corporations, but she'd like to find ways to support a return to small livestock side operations, such as marketing assistance through our Extension Service. Help farmers sell their product on the small, local scale, disentangled from the big global packers, and we'd improve local farm revenues and selection in our local meat shops.

Hagel lights up on environmental issues. She says our key industries of agriculture and tourism depend on a healthy environment. Wreck the land and the water, and we won't be able to raise food or entice travelers to come camp and boat and take pictures. Hagel says we cannot take risks with our aquifers, including the Madison and the Ogallala. That's why she cannot support the Keystone XL pipeline. "We're smarter than that," says Hagel. She says we can think of a better way to meet our energy needs without imperiling our water.

Hagel and her campaign team will be working to get District 33 voters to rally around those issues and other common interests. Hagel faces incumbent Republican Reps. Jacqueline Sly and Scott Craig and Independent challenger Susan Hixson in the November 4 election.

6 comments

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