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SC Department of Education may raise salaries amid staff shortages

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - As part of its budget request to lawmakers for the 2022-23 fiscal year, the South Carolina Department of Education is looking to increase salaries for two critical jobs: teachers and bus drivers.

This comes as the state is facing a shortage of both roles. The Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, & Advancement’s (CERRA) 2021 South Carolina Annual Educator Supply & Demand Report shows that teaching vacancies were up more than 50 percent over the previous year.

The Department of Education is seeking to raise teacher salaries by 2 percent. This would be for all teachers, regardless of experience. Additionally, they’re looking to give a 5 percent pay raise to bus drivers.

The CERRA report detailed that there were approximately 1,060 teacher and service vacancies in South Carolina to start this school year, and the state is down 700 bus drivers.

The Department of Education said increasing pay should help address one factor behind the shortage.

“In order for South Carolina to remain competitive, first we want to raise salaries here to put us in line with the Southeast but we want to continually make advancements towards getting to that national average as well,” Ryan Brown, the Department of Education’s chief communications officer, said.

The 2 percent teacher pay does not include the annual step increase that they receive for each year of experience.

The state has been unable to fund the full 2 percent increase in recent years for early career educators, but officials with the Department of Education hopes that can be corrected in next year’s budget.

“Unfortunately over time the state has not funded 2 percent for those first five years,” Brown said. “This started back in the recession and has just plagued the state and it’s never really gotten to where it needs to be. So we are asking to make headway in getting it back to that 2 percent so that those first five years you get that 2 percent annual increase.”

The requested $162 million increase to the state teacher salary schedule would equate to between $800 to $1700 more per year for teachers depending on their level of experience.

The budget request also includes $75 million to help rural districts upgrade facilities, $100 million for instructional materials and a $5.4 million investment in Virtual SC, which allows students to access courses that may not be available in their schools.

This state-funded program has grown “exponentially” during the pandemic, and the department is hoping to expand it by 20 positions.

The Department of Education intends to continually advocate for teacher pay increases each year, Brown said.

The bus driver pay hike would raise the minimum pay from $8.44 an hour to at least $8.86 an hour. School districts, however, often pay more than that, with some paying upwards of $20 an hour.

“We have a shortage of, I would call it a crisis of bus drivers and the districts are making up the difference,” Sherry East, president of the South Carolina Education Association, said. “Because we want our children in school. I can’t teach a child if they’re not there. Our teachers can’t do their job unless the bus drivers get the kids to school.”

East said the pay increase is needed, but not a “magic bullet.”

“I think it’s a good effort, a good step forward in a raise, a 2 percent raise but I don’t think it’s going to be enough,” she said. “I don’t think a 2 percent raise or the things in the budget are going to immediately fix our shortage that we have right now.”

The department agrees that it will take a holistic approach to retain and recruit high-quality teachers, but said that this could send an important message.

“If young people see that the state is making investments in teachers for the work that they do, hopefully that will make them realize that it’s a viable path for a profession,” Brown said.

Both the Department and SCEA say there area number of other reasons beyond pay that are leading some to leave the teaching profession. Among them are discipline issues and increasing mental health resources for both students and staff.

Additionally, SCEA believes that teachers statewide deserve better working conditions, more training and mentoring programs and smaller class sizes.

“We would love to address class sizes, but before we do that we have to have a full teaching workforce,” Brown said. “Addressing the recruitment and retention issue will help us in turn address class sizes.”

The department said it has used some federal COVID relief money to grow teacher recruitment programs throughout the state. This includes the Call Me MISTER program at Clemson University, which aims to attract male students of color to the profession.

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