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S.D. teachers competed for $1 bills on a hockey rink. Critics called the game ‘terrible’ and ‘dehumanizing.’

Sioux Fall-area teachers compete in a "Dash for Cash” on Dec. 11, 2021, scrambling for $5,000 worth of dollar bills to buy school supplies. (Video: Annie Todd/The Argus Leader)
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At a junior hockey game in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Saturday night, $5,000 in one-dollar bills was dumped onto a carpet in the middle of the ice as 10 local teachers readied themselves to shovel up as much of it as they could.

When the competition began, the teachers — all wearing hockey helmets — crawled into the pile of cash, frantically stuffing the bills into their shirts as an arena of spectators hollered and cheered until every dollar was snatched up.

A clip of the event went viral over the weekend and had amassed more than 7.7 million views on Twitter as of early Monday. Critics said the image of teachers on their hands and knees, scrambling for low-denomination bills, was “dehumanizing” and even “dystopian,” especially as teachers are paid relatively small salaries in South Dakota and nationwide. Some compared the spectacle to the popular Netflix series “Squid Game,” in which the show’s characters compete in deadly games to win a giant piggy bank full of cash.

In an interview with The Washington Post, state Sen. Reynold Nesiba (D), who represents a portion of Sioux Falls, said that while the competition was probably well-intentioned, it ended up being “a terrible image.”

“Teachers should never have to go through something like this to be able to get the resources they need to meet the basic educational needs of our students — whether it’s here in Sioux Falls or anywhere in the United States,” he said.

The Sioux Falls Stampede, a local hockey team, hosted the inaugural “Dash for Cash,” and the money was donated by CU Mortgage Direct, a Sioux Falls lender. The event was billed as an opportunity for teachers to gather money for their classroom needs, KELO reported. Schools had to apply for the competition, and teachers had to explain how they would use the money they won, Stampede President Jim Olander told the station.

“Every teacher has a different reason,” Olander said. For some teachers, “it’s iPads for the classroom,” while for others “it’s just new equipment.”

As far as the competition: “Put it in their shirt, pants, wherever,” Olander told the news station. “They can take as much money as they can grab during the time that we have during the intermission.”

The teachers’ schools also received $5 for every ticket they sold to the game.

“The teachers in this area, and any teacher, they deserve whatever the heck they get,” Ryan Knudson, the director of business development and marketing for CU Mortgage Direct, told the Argus Leader.

Neither Knudson nor Olander immediately responded to requests for comment on the criticism late Sunday.

In the end, Barry Longden, a teacher at a local high school, snatched the most cash — $616, the Argus Leader reported. He said he will put his winnings toward an esports program he runs for students. Alexandria Kuyper, a fifth-grade teacher, managed to grab $592. She said she will use the money on treats and decorations for her classroom. Other teachers said they’d use their winnings on flexible seating, standing desks and document cameras to upload lessons online, the paper reported.

“I think it’s really cool when the community offers an opportunity like this for things that [educators] a lot of times pay out of pocket for,” Kuyper told the Argus Leader.

South Dakota teachers are among the lowest paid in the country. According to a recent report by the National Education Association, South Dakota teachers in the 2019-20 fiscal year earned an average annual salary of about $49,000, behind only Mississippi. In terms of per-student spending, the state ranked 38th, having spent about $10,800 per student in the fall term of that year, according to the report.

In the United States, the average teacher salary was about $64,000 in 2019-20, and per-student spending was slightly more than $13,500, according to the NEA report. Meanwhile, 1 in 4 American teachers reported they considered leaving the classroom by the end of the last academic year, a survey by the Rand Corp., a nonpartisan research organization, found. The reasons may include the stresses of the modern education system combined with pressures imposed by the pandemic, The Post reported.

Why so many teachers are thinking of quitting

In South Dakota, schools have trouble hiring teachers because of the low salaries, said Nesiba, who is also an economics professor at Augustana University. He added that Republican Gov. Kristi L. Noem’s proposal introduced last week to increase teacher salaries by 6 percent is “simply not enough” as prices continue to rapidly climb.

Events like Dash for Cash will not help solve the problem, Nesiba said. Instead, he urged his followers on Twitter to donate to a foundation that supports academic activities that are not covered by state tax dollars.

“I hope … the absurdity of that image of teachers on their hands and knees in the middle of a hockey rink, trying to grab money, brings attention to the education funding needs that exist here in Sioux Falls, across South Dakota and across the U.S.," he said.