Special education teachers object to $10,000 sign-on bonuses for new instructors

Sioux Falls School District offering additional money to attract teachers amid shortage.

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A special education teacher works with a student in the Sioux Falls School District. The district is offering $10,000 hiring bonuses to deal with a growing shortage of special education teachers.
Contributed / Sioux Falls School District

SIOUX FALLS — A group of special education teachers told the Sioux Falls School Board on Monday, May 22, that they oppose the move made last week to raise the hiring incentive for special education teachers from $5,000 to $10,000.

Veteran special education instructor Jess Mulhair described it as a “big time slap in the face” to offer such a bonus to beginning teachers when they won’t receive similar compensation.

“Are we supposed to keep our heads up and feel proud for not being compensated in a similar fashion,” she said.

“When news of this incentive broke it took my breath away,” she said. “I was really confused as to how we got here as a district.”

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Special education teachers Lori Pokela (right) and Jess Mulhair address the Sioux Falls School Board on Monday, May 22, 2023.
Contributed / Sioux Falls School District video

She said many of the approximate 160 special education teachers of the 1,800 teachers districtwide have bachelor’s, master’s and special education degrees.


“They were paid for by ourselves and we wish that meant something to our district,” she said. “I don’t really know what $10,000 is to a 22-year-old teacher fresh out of college. I couldn't even fathom that amount of money at that age.”

Another instructor in special education, Lori Pokela, said that a 14-year veteran teacher would be making less than a college graduate for the year with the bonus.

She added that special education instructors are also “overwhelmed and overworked” and don’t have enough preparation time.

“Is a $10,000 bonus for an inexperienced teacher really the most effective solution?” she asked.

Superintendent Jane Stavem responded later in the meeting in comments to the board.

“This is an issue in districts nationwide,” she said. “While we would rather not have to incentivize positions. I'm also not going to apologize to do whatever we can to fill the positions with the most qualified candidates.”

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Rebecca Dorman, human resources senior director, Sioux Falls School District
Contributed / Sioux Falls School District

She asked Senior Human Resources Director Becky Dorman to explain what the incentives have done since they were offered last week.

Dorman said they had only four applicants previously, and not all had special education certification.


Currently, there are 20 applicants for the 20 open positions, with six having special education certifications.

“So that's promising,” she said.

However, she said two of the six with certification are international candidates so that could present “potentially a hurdle.”

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Jane Stavem, superintendent, Sioux Falls School District.
Contributed / Sioux Falls School District

Stavem added that the district is continuing to look at ways to retain instructors.

She added her respect for teachers by saying teaching “has never been and will never be an easy profession.”

“We continue to look at how to retain our existing staff and are trying to do our best,” she said.

Stavem said there are many “layers” to the special education situation and that it’s not all monetary. She said they also try to help the staff with training and extra staffing. As examples, she said there are coaches, behavioral aides and specialists who help with developing required instructional plans for the special education students.

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Kate Serenbetz, president of the Sioux Falls School Board.
Contributed / Sioux Falls School District

School Board President Kate Serenbetz said the $10,000 bonus could be considered a way to help new staff with moving expenses.


After the meeting, Dorman said current special education teachers are in the midst of a three-year program that is giving those instructors an extra $2,000 each year. Those specializing in behavioral programs are receiving $4,000 each year in bonuses.

Dorman added the $10,000 bonus is also available to current Sioux Falls instructors who have special education certification but are in other fields or others interested in entering special education.

Community Relations Coordinator DeAnn Konrad said they checked with area universities and the number of students in special education lanes are way down.

She added that even finding other teachers can be “challenging” as the number of students going into the profession has been “quiet” the past few years.

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