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School Teachers Fight For Cash In Kristi Noem’s South Dakota

Originally published by The 19th

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Ten helmeted teachers stuffed fistfuls of dollar bills into their shirts and hats while kneeling on the ice at the Denny Sanford Premier Center Saturday night. During a break in the Sioux Falls Stampede hockey game, the educators scrambled to take as much of the $5,000 pile as they could within 60 seconds amid a cacophony of cheers and stadium music. 

us dollar bills
Photo by olia danilevich on Pexels.com

The cash was meant to be spent on classroom supplies, which teachers often pay for out of pocket. Each teacher managed to grab at least a couple hundred dollars, per local news outlet the Argus Leader — which would cover some expenses shouldered by educators living in one of the lowest-paying states for teachers in the United States. 

Saturday’s competition was widely denounced on social media, including by the South Dakota Democratic Party and state Sen. Reynold Nesiba, a Democrat who represents part of Sioux Falls. Nesiba told The Washington Post that the event created “a terrible image” despite likely good intentions, and later called for donations to the Sioux Falls Public Schools Education Foundation. After the uproar online, the team and the event sponsor apologized and said they would donate additional funds to the contestants and other teachers who had sought to compete.

Patrick Heyen, who teaches math and science to seventh graders at Memorial Middle School in Sioux Falls, told the Argus Leader that he planned to use the money for flexible seating — like wobble stools or standing desks. Another local elementary school teacher said the competition was an opportunity to raise money for out-of-pocket expenses like holiday decorations.

Teachers spent an average of $750 out of their own pocket on school supplies during the 2020-2021 school year, according to a survey of 5,400 teachers administered by AdoptAClassroom, a nonprofit that raises funds for school supplies. Tim Ingalls — CEO of CU Mortgage Direct, which funded the event — did not return a call for comment after a company spokesperson said he would be out of office for several days. 

In a statement on Monday evening, the Sioux Falls Stampede hockey team and CU Mortgage Direct issued a joint apology and said they would give $500 to the 10 teachers that participated on Saturday — in addition to cash they grabbed in the rink — as well as $500 to the 21 teachers that applied to participate and weren’t chosen.  

“Although our intent was to provide a positive and fun experience for teachers, we can see how it appears to be degrading and insulting towards the participating teachers and the teaching profession as a whole,” the joint statement says.

South Dakota public school teachers have among the lowest salaries of teachers in the country, the National Education Association found this spring. The average salary for South Dakota teachers in the 2019-2020 school year was $48,984, per the NEA and the state’s teacher compensation review board. The estimated average salary of South Dakota teachers as of September this year was $49,993, the board said in its annual report, still putting the state at the bottom rung. 

Jim Olander, president of the Sioux Falls Stampede, did not return a voicemail and email for comment, and the hockey team deleted their original press release about the “Dash for Cash” on Monday afternoon, following the online backlash. 

Olander told local TV station KELO last week that each school applied to participate and teachers shared different reasons for what they would use the money for — like iPads for their classrooms or new equipment. Tickets to the game sold by teachers also put $5 towards their schools, the station reported.

“We know in this day and age, schools are in need of funding, and we’re just trying to play a small part to help them out and have some fun while doing it,” Olander told the station.

In the Sioux Falls School District, teacher applications dropped this fall, as many teachers across South Dakota shouldered extra duties while teaching during the coronavirus pandemic. 

A shortage of substitute teachers meant that 57 percent of South Dakota teachers were expected to cover other classrooms when other teachers were ill, the state’s education department found in a study this summer. And 22 percent of teachers among the 801 surveyed schools were expected to take on non-teaching duties. 

Roughly 72 percent of schools said they offered teachers a bonus for extra work, and 44 percent offered mental health or self care resources — while 96 percent of schools offered “personal encouragement” for that increased workload. 

For some, stress of the job — especially during a pandemic — may be a more pressing concern than pay. Among former public school teachers surveyed by the RAND Corporation, stress was named as the most common reason for leaving teaching nearly twice as often as insufficient pay. Fifty-six percent of teachers said they mainly left because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

In the Stampede hockey team’s now-deleted press release, the team pointed to a past example of a “Dash for Cash” event held by the Green Bay Gamblers hockey team in Wisconsin, which put on the event with local schools for several years.

Barry Longden, a math teacher at Harrisburg High School, was the biggest winner on Saturday; he grabbed roughly $600 dollars, per the Argus Leader. Longden could not be reached over the phone on Monday. 

“I need to get more equipment, so more computers, more devices for the students to use and play on, so that’s going to be a big portion of what that money will go towards,” Longden told local station KELO

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