SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Jessica Ries settles in behind the counter of Tip Top Tux and phones a couple to remind them of an upcoming fitting before their wedding. In the back room, beyond the dapper mannequins and vest swatches of pink, yellow and blue, a tote filled with review packets for 24 of her Hayward Elementary School students awaits her attention if she gets any down time.
Ries dismissed her fourth-graders at 2:45 p.m. and, after an hour-long teachers’ meeting, hurried to the strip mall shop to fill a three-hour evening shift. There’s no time to head home or step out for dinner; a chicken breast reheated in the microwave will have to suffice.
“I don’t get home until 9 p.m. those nights,” said Ries, 26. “That’s twice a week, and then I work weekends.”
Second and even third jobs are the norm for many school teachers in South Dakota, where teacher pay ranks lowest in the nation, according to a state education task force. Gov. Dennis Daugaard has proposed a half-cent sales tax increase to help raise teacher pay, but his plan needs two-thirds approval in both the House and the Senate — a tough proposition in a legislature with an anti-tax lean.
Mary McCorkle, president of the South Dakota Education Association, said teachers often give up their evenings by grading papers and preparing lessons, and second jobs lead to burnout.
“Something has to give, whether it’s your health, your sanity,” McCorkle said. “You just can’t do everything, and you want to be there for your students.”
The SDEA, which represents more than 5,000 teachers in the state, said Daugaard’s proposal is an acknowledgement that South Dakota schools are having trouble hiring and keeping teachers.
The Brookings School District used to get dozens of applications for each open teaching position but now receives resumes from just a handful of qualified candidates, said school board President Steve Bayer. The pool depth is likely dwindling as applicants look across South Dakota’s eastern border to better-paying jobs.
“When you can make another thousand dollars a month as an experienced teacher, it’s probably worth looking at a place in Minnesota,” he said.
South Dakota’s average teacher salary of $40,023 in 2013-14 lagged an average of six states that border it by $11,888 a year and was $8,643 behind the next lowest neighbor, North Dakota, the group found. In some of South Dakota’s more remote areas, that average salary drops quickly.
Lori Brandt, 54, has been teaching in Big Stone for 31 years, yet the sixth- to eighth-grade reading and English teacher makes just $42,000. To get by, she pulls night and weekend desk shifts at a Super 8 motel, and doesn’t get home some weeknights until 11 p.m.
Her three grown children graduated from Lake Area Technical Institute, with one son working in maintenance at a cheese factory, another son working at a feedlot and a daughter working as an agriculture manager.
“They all started jobs where they’re making more money starting than what I make having taught for that many years,” Brandt said.
Daugaard has proposed boosting average pay by 21 percent to $48,500 per year, relying on a sales tax increase that the House’s top Republican has already called unlikely. Majority Leader Brian Gosch said he was working to come up with a plan to raise pay without raising taxes, suggesting schools could dip into reserves or that state aid could be increased.
Teachers across the state say they hear a standard pushback line when the issue of low salaries is raised: They work just nine months of the year.
Jared Baumann, an eighth-grade science teacher at Patrick Henry Middle School in Sioux Falls, says that’s not reality. He spends his summers working more than 40 hours a week for a Sioux Falls moving company, and during the school year puts in two or three Saturdays a month doing the same work.
Baumann sees his fellow University of Northern Iowa alum making twice what he makes in marketing, sales and business.
“I can’t buy the house they just bought,” he said. “I can’t afford to take my family on the vacation that they just went on.”
Ries, who also works as an assistant soccer coach at Augustana University in the fall, said she needs multiple jobs to pay down student loans and pursue the master’s degree that could someday boost her $36,000 salary. Ries and her husband, Tom, would like to have a child, but they want to be in a better financial situation before taking that step.
“We’re not people who spend money on super nice things and then don’t have enough money to pay our bills,” she said. “We don’t have enough money to just live, not live out of our means.”