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Legislature Prioritizes Restoring Own Life Insurance over Rehiring Teachers

The Executive Board of the South Dakota Legislature wants to restore a life-insurance benefit for legislators. According to Mr. Mercer, the Legislature extended this benefit to its members after Rep. Gary Bender of Menno died in a summer farming accident. They cut that benefit from the budget last session but now want to bring it back. Price tag: $10,000 to provide a death benefit of $200,000.

If the Legislature can find the cash to restore that generous workplace perk, will it get serious and restore the funding that put 214 teachers out of work in the last fiscal year and reduced teacher salaries across the state?

Public schools shed 214 teaching jobs and 14 administrators last school year in the wake of a dramatic reduction in state aid.

Budget data recently released by the South Dakota Department of Education show the workforce fallout from a 6.6 percent cut in the state’s per-student funding formula.

Schools reduced not only the number of educators they employ, but also their average salary. The average teacher in 2011-12 made $38,807 — down $446, or 1.1 percent, from the previous year — probably solidifying the state’s last-place position in teacher pay [Josh Verges, "S.D. Schools Cut 214 Teachers, Reduced Salaries Last Year," that Sioux Falls paper, 2012.12.19].

102 schools dropped 258.1 full-time equivalents. 50 schools added 44.1 FTEs.

Reducing staff means increasing the number of students each remaining teacher has to work with. That reduces the amount of time each remaining teacher has to plan and to spend in individual time with each student. Brookings teachers will tell you that reducing planning and tutoring time makes it harder for the remaining teachers to serve the kids as well as they did before. So will Blake Dahlberg of the Newell School District:

Blake Dahlberg, who was the K-8 principal last year, is now superintendent and K-12 principal. He also serves as the counselor after that person was laid off.

“I’ve tried to make it very clear to (the school board) that this is only a temporary solution. It’ll either be a temporary solution or I’ll be here only temporarily,” he said.

Dahlberg said the funding cut wasn’t all bad, because it forced them to get more efficient. One science class had only a few students last year, and because no one signed up for physics, that teacher had an extra free period. They also reduced their seven bus routes to four without leaving too many students out.

But with fewer people running the school, some important duties don’t get the attention they need.

“There are some things that are starting to show a little strain, like curriculum development and teacher evaluation,” Dahlberg said [Verges, 2012.12.19].

You're just not going to get as a good a level of counseling from a person who is also handling superintendent duties for the entire district as you will from a full-time counselor. Dahlb erg also shows that Governor Daugaard's budget cuts make it harder to do exactly the work that the Governor wants us doing more off, curriculum development (to re-engineer our teaching to fit the Common Core Standards he's pushing) and teacher evaluation (which he wants us to revamp to fit the for-profit Charlotte Danielson framework).

Last year, Governor Daugaard's budget took 214 adults out of our schools. That's 214 fewer adults that our kids can turn to at school. That's 214 fewer adults who can take a spare moment to talk to kids who are feeling left out or overwhelmed... and that's 9,000 some remaining adults who are so busy picking up the slack of the lost workers that they don't have as many spare moments for those kids in need, either.

On the off chance that Rep. Stace Nelson may fall in a well and break his neck, I don't mind putting a few tax dollars back in the budget to ensure his wife and kids get some money to help see them through a terrible loss (though it might make more sense to fill that old well!). But I would rather the Legislature look beyond insuring itself against a rare misfortune and focus on undoing the clear and daily damage its budget cuts have done to K-12 education.


  1. Dana P. 2012.12.20

    make perfect sense to me. Why do they continue to take their eyes of the "big picture"? sigh

  2. Barry Smith 2012.12.20

    I would think that all of these folks already have life insurance. I guess you can never have enough insurance though, unless of course you are sick and poor at which rate you cant get any insurance.

  3. Rorschach 2012.12.20

    Education funding ought to be a priority in Pierre, and it's not. But must you pile on people who haven't had a raise in pay in well over 10 years? (legislators). They are doing their job in 2012 for a 1999 pay rate! Now they have a benefit cut.

    Applying the same rationale you apply to school funding, you should be advocating for a substantial pay increase for legislators rather than excoriating them for reinstating a meager benefit they gave up last year in an attempt to share the pain.

  4. Rorschach 2012.12.20

    This petty criticism of state legislators has me worked up a bit. SD legislators are a bargain compared to congress.

    State legislators work 35-40 session days a year for $6,000. They get no health benefits, no retirement benefits. Every year they pass a budget. Every bill introduced gets a hearing and a recorded vote. Attendance records are kept so you can see who's working and who's not. Usually they answer their own e-mails, and you can talk to them personally on the phone.

    From what I could tell, Congress members had 109 scheduled work days in 2012 for their $174,000 paycheck. On top of that they get health insurance and retirement benefits. They don't respond to e-mails. They don't answer their own phones. They even did away with attendance records so you can't see who's working or not working. And they don't get any work done. No budget. No farm bill. Most bills just get sat on with no hearing in either the house or senate. Just a bunch of overpaid do-nothings.

    In this holiday season, contact your legislator and thank them for doing South Dakota's business efficiently and diligently - even if you don't always like the results.

  5. Steve O'Brien 2012.12.20

    Rorschach, I see your point about the legislators being picked on for doing a thankless job. Two questions however seem warranted to keep perspective: are our legislators the lowest paid in the nation? Is their pay 63% of what the national average is for legislators? For that matter, do all legislators deserve this benefit, or just the "best" ones?

    The point seems that beyond money, there is an issue of priorities. You said that the insurance was something cut so that legislators would "share the pain." I think that trivializes the pain that was suffered by many from the budget cuts, especially as Cory points out, in education. Legislators do not rely on this as their main income; the size of the legislature was not reduced forcing people to lose their livelihood. When the tone of funding is to put every penny spent under scrutiny, then every penny should be held to that standard.

    The final point that should be made is that legislators uniquely control their own fate; they decide their benefits and salary.

  6. Rorschach 2012.12.20

    "Legislators do not rely on this as their main income." Steve, I think you are trivializing the work and the sacrifice of South Dakota legislators with your entire comment as exemplified by this quote. Two months in Pierre is 2 months away from a legislator's "main income" - at least those legislators whose "main income" depends on their personal labor. For most, legislative income replaces 2 months of other income. And for professional work, $6,000 is not much for 2 months. Why don't you spend months campaigning for a legislative seat for the privilege of reducing your pay for 2 months, Steve? You do make more than $6,000 every 2 months, don't you?

    Here's another observation. People run for the legislature, or choose not to run, for different reasons. One of those reasons is the pay. Young people like Jenna Haggar and her boyfriend Isaac Latterell with few marketable skills run so they can have a fancy title and increase their pay over that of the fast food job they are qualified for. Others who are better qualified opt not to run and serve because their family depends on the greater income they make in the private sector. That loss of income from serving may in fact be more than the difference in pay for 2 months, but may also include a loss of business during those 2 months of the legislature that reduces income for the rest of the year as well as the 2 months.

  7. Steve O'Brien 2012.12.20

    Rorschach, I agree, $6,000 is not much for professional work. Looking at the figures from the article, a legislator would make $467 less than the average teacher over those two months. To answer your question directly, as an average paid teacher in SD, I do make more than $6,000 in two months - but not by much, not by much at all. In your defense, you point out that $6,000 is a trivial salary for qualified people in SD.

    Maybe I am drifting off the original point, but the profession of teaching seems to be one area that your analysis of a massive pay cut to go to the legislature is not true. Again, as an issue of political priority, I hoped that would be higher on the legislative agenda than the seemingly self-serving (again an issue of presentation and timing) reinstatement of legislator benefits.

  8. Les 2012.12.20

    Anyone who thinks a good legislator only works two months has no undstanding of the job.

  9. Donald Pay 2012.12.20

    Most legislators earn their money, but I wouldn't say they are underpaid. It is a job they apply for and they know the salary and per diem payments going in. The hours can get long during a few weeks of session, but then there are slack times as well. The first week of session is usually really slow. You and I might call it paid vacation. After that things start picking up. I realize most legislators put in time outside of session. They do get per diem for official work outside of session.

  10. Douglas Wiken 2012.12.20

    Legislative candidates need to pass a physical, mental, and IQ test before being allowed in election races.

    Legislators in their infinitely finite wisdom have made SD a right to work state. Legislators should remember that as they seek to pad their own pay.

    The insurance increase sounds like an idea from the Rounds Family government loophole and sinecure exploitation industries.

    More seriously, get rid of the bicameral and have a single house with half as many members as current total and then we could think about increasing the legislative pay. Until then, there should be no increases in benefits or pay.

    And, their pay should be set at some multiple of the state minimum wage so they only way they can increase their pay is to increase the minimum wage.

  11. Steve O'Brien 2012.12.20

    One important statistic that was not included in the statistics was that in the face of all these reductions to schools and their employee salaries, the state did increase its reserves by over 12 million dollars.

    Making cuts to address "hard times" should also mean that the savings account should not swell at the same time.

  12. Rorschach 2012.12.20

    I'll add this to the discussion about the accidental death and disability benefit at issue. Driving back and forth to Pierre during the winter can be a hazardous endeavor. I don't recall hearing about any legislative deaths or seroius injuries driving back and forth to the capital, but if it ever happens the public will be glad to know that the affected legislator or his/her family receives that benefit.

  13. Rorschach 2012.12.20

    And yes Steve, the Education Enhancement trust fund exists primarily to enhance Wall Street - not education.

  14. Dylan 2012.12.20

    I really like Douglas Wiken's idea of multiple of minimum wage. They should be payed at minimum wage, and not a penny more. After all, minimum wage is supposed to be the low bar of what is possible to support a family with. If they can't get by on it well then they understand my point.

  15. Rorschach 2012.12.20

    Nobody is saying, Les, that legislators only work 2 months out of the year. My point was that they are underpaid for the 2 months of full time work. Although they do get a per diem and mileage for official meetings outside of the legislative session, much of what they do for 10 months of the year, including campaigning, constituent service, meetings with the public, etc. - is uncompensated. This further underscores my point that legislators are underpaid for the work we expect them to perform. If nothing is done about it the quality of our legislature will decline in much the same manner as teachers argue that the quality of their profession will decline for lack of competetive wages.

  16. Les 2012.12.20

    Steve O @"" a legislator would make $467 less than the average teacher over those two months. To answer your question directly, as an average paid teacher in SD, I do make more than $6,000 in two months - but not by much, not by much at all."" ........Quoting Steve the teacher above, I did more than hold my tongue on teachers only working 9 months where that monthly salary would be 5333+/- if figured on those same terms.
    I believe there is some mileage and per diem paid them as well for official summer work and there are wages paid for his hobby of painting houses while off for the summer.

  17. Steve O'Brien 2012.12.20

    Les, you are right; fair point. Although contracted for 12 months, I only teach when school is in session - it is probably a little unfair to call that only 9 months. I do think we would have first year teachers at some schools awfully close to that salary. If we are claiming that a legislator works far beyond their 2 months, I hope my teacher colleagues get some recognition for that too - as well as going beyond the 8-4 contract day.

    Also I have to call you out (in good spirit of natured ribbing); I don't think you can you say you "did more than hold your tongue" when you are writing the exact point you were "holding your tongue about." lol

    To the main point, in a state where average salaries puts it in the top half of the nation, a legislature that creates a system where many workers are below national averages deserves some heat for appearing to feather their own nest before bringing others up. Politics is appearances, and this one didn't look good.

    I'm just glad nobody has dragged Hitler into this discussion like the gun debate thread.

  18. Owen Reitzel 2012.12.20

    "I'm just glad nobody has dragged Hitler into this discussion like the gun debate thread."

    Sibby hasn't posted yet here Steve. lol. I agree with you but a legislator doesn't have to be recertified, although they do have to be reelected.
    I think they are underpaid but so is almost everyone in South Dakota and teachers rank 51st in the nation for salary

  19. Les 2012.12.20

    Besides my mother, my family is full of teachers Steve, even though our family is prob no more than 40th cousin to Hitler I would never mix Hitler with our school teachers.
    I appreciate your nature Steve.
    Back to the topic at hand, if they can get $200,000 insurance on all legislators for $10,000 that is a real deal.
    Now if Cory is trying to say it is $10,000 per legislator, I'd get a quote from Fischer Rounds... ;-)

  20. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.12.21

    I'm actually o.k. with paying legislators more for their service. But even there, I'd rather invest in direct salaries than on gambling on their deaths while in office (how grim!). And while I voted for Amendment N to raise their first and last mileage reimbursement, I wonder if maybe we ought to reimburse fewer goodies and hike the pay just so the public can see more clearly how much it spends on legislators.

    But proposals for boosting legislator benefits should get in line behind redressing the fiscal damage done to education.

  21. Ryan Maher 2012.12.21

    I posted this very same thing on the war college awhile back:

    I would like to share some thoughts on this issue being in the Senate from the Northwestern part of the state and covering over 17,000 square miles. First off, I am not complaining, I chose to run for this seat and I have been privileged to hold this seat for the past 6 years.
    I live in Isabel, so my eastern boundary is the Missouri River at Mobridge and that is only about 60 miles away. However, the western edge of my district is Belle Fourche and that is right at 150 miles from where I live. Camp Cook is about 130 miles from home. I try to make it to just about every community in the district at least once in a two year cycle; some communities see more of me.
    We get called to Belle Fourche many times a year for evening meetings, and I consider myself lucky because, I have some very good friends in Spearfish and they let me stay at their place. I have been there so much they just leave me a bedroom open. I really don’t have to call them anymore, I just show up. This saves on hotel expense, and the car expense, from hitting those deer on the road late at night.
    I remember one year I was coming back home from one of those December meetings in Belle and the temp out side was right at 15 below and then add the wind chill to that, and if anyone has traveled between Newell and Faith on Hwy 212, this is one lonely road at midnight on a night like that, you just pray that your car does not break down because you know if it does it will be your last night.
    I figure being in the legislature costs me at least $10,000 to $15,000 a year to do the job. [note: current pay is $6,000/yr.]That is gas, hiring help to cover your absent at work, parade candy, etc, etc. The first five year when I was still working at the bank and never used a vacation day for personal reasons, they were all used to do legislative work. But like I said, I have been blessed to live in this great state and so if I can give a little bit back it is worth it in the end.

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