Excerpts from recent South Dakota editorials

October 17, 2019

Sioux Falls Argus Leader, Oct. 11

Get aggressive to solve substitute teacher shortage

The Sioux Falls School District isn’t taking the challenge of its substitute teacher shortage lying down.

That’s good news, especially given recent taxpayer commitments to add and enhance district facilities. Administrators and education advocates worked hard last year to engage and inform the community about the desperate need for a new high school, middle school and elementary school. Those efforts paid off when voters overwhelmingly approved a proposed $190 million bond to ensure adequate brick-and-mortar resources for the education of Sioux Falls students.

So we know Sioux Falls is willing to invest in our children’s future. The dearth of available substitute teachers presents a different kind of challenge, a chronic workforce infrastructure issue with complex causes. Remedying it will require more hard work, close analysis and creative solutions.

At the beginning of this school year, the district said it needed 250 substitutes. Recruitment strategies shifted to social media advertising and digital billboards in Sioux Falls. So far, those tactics have culminated in offers of employment to 267 applicants. Only 174 have taken the next step to attend orientation.

There’s little room for lowering the base qualifications to be a substitute teacher in Sioux Falls. The district looks first for willing applicants with a four-year college degree, not necessarily one in education. It also considers candidates with a two-year associate degree, current post-secondary students who have two years of work experience, and even those whose formal education ended with a high school diploma or GED and who have five years of solid work experience. For all practical purposes, someone qualifies to be considered as a potential substitute teacher candidate if they can pass a criminal background check.

The problem isn’t that our standards are too high, then, which is itself a concern. We should be able to expect that our students are receiving a top-notch education no matter who stands at the head of the classroom. South Dakota’s miserly contribution to school funding does no favors on that account. It bears noting the struggle school districts statewide face in filling regular credentialed teaching positions before the start of each school year. About 30 of the new full-time teachers hired in the Sioux Falls School District were themselves former subs.

Put simply, there is no answer to filling the substitute teacher gap in Sioux Falls that won’t involve increased financial outlay, or at the very least moving budget dollars from one bucket to another. Part of the return on that investment is the potential time and money saved in the scramble to fill the daily average need for between 130 and 300 fill-ins.

What additional or alternative tactics are available to the district, especially in the tight labor market?

Community outreach and recruitment can be more robust. Job fairs geared toward substitute teachers. Relationship-building and one-on-one overtures to individuals who already fit the job description, like retired educators and stay-at-home parents of school-aged children. Partnerships with local universities for college credit and tuition assistance for post-secondary students who sub for the district.

People who have never taught may hesitate to jump into the subbing game with only the minimum of training the district requires. Pairing new substitutes with experienced teachers and providing mentoring opportunities as well as more in-depth training on what to expect could help boost the confidence of potential applicants.

Converting at least a portion of the substitute pool to the status of full-time “utility” teachers — either working where needed day-to-day within specific schools or regular floaters among all district schools — is a concept gaining some traction across the country. Paying $110 a day for 174 school days runs just under $20k for the year. A full-time job with consistent work hours for 9 months out of the year at a guaranteed $20,000 may appeal to a segment of potential applicants, especially those with school-aged children. It could be a cost-neutral (or nearly so) way for the district to maintain its budget while having greater assurance that daily classroom needs are being met.

Outsourcing all or part of the process of recruiting, screening, onboarding, training and scheduling substitute teachers is another way that administrators might streamline these operations.

The most important piece of the puzzle is a community that cares about the education of its children — and the scores of individuals who are willing to put in compensated effort to make that education the best it can be. We believe that the people of Sioux Falls, provided adequate awareness and support from the school district administration, can rise to this challenge.


Rapid City Journal, Oct. 6

Noem corrects STAR Academy lease fiasco

State government last week compounded its sale error at the former STAR Academy near Custer with an unforgivable and probably unnecessary lack of empathy. On Thursday, Gov. Kristi Noem compassionately reversed course.

This was the path: Take an institution that has been an important part of the local community for more than a century. Legislate its latest purpose — the STAR Academy — out of existence in the name of juvenile justice reform. Close the institution and determine to sell the property over locals’ objections.

In government, these things are sometimes unfortunate but necessary. You’d think everybody involved would understand the need for careful handling and diplomacy. That’s where the state initially fell down.

It didn’t bother to fully investigate the principal investors for the lone bidder who stepped forward during two auctions held months apart. That led the state to repossess the property when the buyer failed to make a required payment. Then the state moved to immediately evict everyone who leased property from the failed buyer.

Renters learned last week they must be out by the end of October. Aaron Brownson was one of 11 house renters — there were also several commercial tenants — who received the eviction letters last week from the state Department of Corrections. Brownson had lived on the former STAR Academy campus for 14 years — through the period of closure, through the sale by the state and through the brief period of new ownership. Now that the state owned the property again, he was told he had to go and right now.

The state blamed unnamed liability issues for forcing the evictions but offered little further explanation.

“They just said, ‘You’re out.’ It doesn’t make sense to me,” Brownson said.

It didn’t to us, either.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Kristi Noem said earlier in the week that “the impact on tenants is real but each of them were in month-to-month leases and there are liability issues for the state and its taxpayers when the property reverted back to the state in early September.”

Which was interesting. If they were in month-to-month leases, the state could use its own lease arrangements going forward. Why couldn’t the state reinstate the lease agreement used with Brownson over the many years prior to the sale?

Last time, it took a while for the state to locate a buyer, and it wasn’t because it was being picky. It certainly could take longer to find a qualified buyer this time. The state’s decision smacked of blatant disregard for citizens caught up in a mess the state helped create.

On Thursday, Noem reversed course and extended the leases beyond Oct. 31 for families living on the grounds.

“After hearing from impacted families, Noem yesterday (Thursday) agreed to extend the residential leases for families at STAR Academy until March 1, 2020. She understands it can be difficult to find housing in the Custer area on short notice and is willing to take on some of the liability risks in order to help those families,” said Noem’s press secretary, Kristin Wileman.

It was the correct and compassionate decision to make.


Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan, Oct. 15

South Dakota and Columbus Day

Many of us have long chided South Dakota for what we perceive as its more perplexing deficiencies. For instance, we criticized the state for being ranked last in the country in terms of teachers’ pay — a title we held for decades. More recently, many people are grumbling about the state’s foot-dragging on the issue of industrial hemp, believing that our slowness to accept this new crop will put us behind much of the rest of the country in its production ...

You get the idea.

But, with turnabout being fair play, it’s a time of the year to give South Dakota its due as being on the cutting edge of a change that is gradually taking root across the country.

Back in 1990, South Dakota became the first state in the country to change Columbus Day to Native American Day. The state took the holiday (which used to be observed on Oct. 12 but became a Monday holiday in 1971) honoring the Italian explorer and re-envisioned it as a day celebrating the indigenous culture that was here and thriving long before Columbus “sailed the ocean blue in Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-Two.” South Dakota embraced this change as part of Gov. George Mickelson’s “Year of Reconciliation” between the Native American and white cultures. (By the way, Nebraska and Iowa never officially observed Columbus Day at all after it was made a national holiday in 1934.)

Now, 29 years later, at least 10 states have changed the Columbus Day observance into a celebration of indigenous heritage, usually called Indigenous Peoples’ Day or, in Hawaii, Discoverers’ Day. Many cities and college campuses have also adopted a form of this change. Several such entities adopted similar changes this year. It was even adopted this week on a temporary basis by the council of the District of Columbia, an area that was literally named after Columbus. (Unfortunately, a few people have carried the sentiment to extremes. On Monday, statues of Columbus in San Francisco and Providence, Rhode Island, were vandalized, according to news reports.)

Many Native Americans and non-Native Americans have long seen Columbus not as the “discoverer” of a New World but as the vanguard of a European invasion that brought death, disease and cultural destruction to this continent.

“The Europeans essentially tried to eradicate us,” New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, who is Native American, told Voice of America. “They brought disease. They banished us to reservations later on when the U.S. government became an active force.”

History generally remembers Columbus as an explorer who was trying to find a route to China, but wound up on a small island (not what is now the United States) instead. While he wasn’t the first European to explore the New World — for instance, the Vikings (of the non-NFL variety) were here centuries before him — Columbus became the enduring symbol for the tide of European explorers, adventurers and/or plunderers to follow.

Still, not everyone is ready to jump off the Columbus Day ship. Many Italian Americans see the holiday as a celebration of their heritage, and some say they’re offended by suggestions that the day should be changed. In Maine, which adopted Indigenous Peoples’ Day just this year, the University of Maine College Republicans derided the state’s switch as part of a “radical left-wing agenda.”

That might be news to the people of South Dakota, who, years before those college kids were born, decided to celebrate a heritage that is right here among us and of this land. And it is still part of us today.

Columbus Day will likely never completely disappear— Columbus Day sales are still quite popular with retailers and shoppers, for instance — but a day celebrating America’s indigenous roots continues to gather momentum and may well dwarf the Columbus observance in the not-too-distant future.

But South Dakota’s been there for a long while. And the state should be proud of being a leader in that change.