ND schools question savings in education bill

Minot legislator testifies in support

Rep. Matt Ruby, R-Minot, stood alone Wednesday in testifying in support of his bill to mandate superintendent-sharing by smaller schools. School board members and administrators lined up to oppose the bill during a hearing before the House Education Committee.

Ruby, who represents a largely rural district, said he supports small schools and introduced House Bill 1251 as a step away from school consolidations and toward cost savings.

“Over the last decade, this body has increased the state share of public education by over $1 billion,” he said of the Legislature. “The reasons were for various programs geared to children in need of special attention, to develop programs to improve outcomes for students and to increase teacher salaries, particularly in the rural schools where recruiting is the hardest. Over that same decade, superintendent salaries have increased at a rate of 33%, while teachers’ salaries have increased by 25%.

“I have to ask, at what point do we put our foot down and take a little responsibility for the funding that we are putting into the schools?” he said. “This is a bill that invoked an emotional response, but this isn’t personal. I’m simply looking at this from a lens of fiscal responsibility and asking the question: Are these dollars really being best utilized for our children?”

Ruby said the bill’s proposals would free up $13 million that could go back into classrooms and teacher salaries.

HB 1251 requires schools with enrollments below 475 students to share superintendents, beginning in the fall of 2024. A school district that falls below 475 students can submit a waiver for a one-year exemption. Superintendent compensation would be limited to 1.5% of the district’s budget.

Aimee Copas, executive director for the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders, said 132 of the state’s 168 school districts would be affected by the bill and four more are on the cusp of falling below 475 students.

The average superintendent pay in smaller, Class B schools, is $111,899, and of the 71 school superintendents in the state, 50 have a combination role of superintendent and principal, she said.

“Schools may not all have chosen to create efficiencies across borders, but they have created internal efficiencies,” she said.

The North Dakota School Boards Association presented a stack of paperwork representing letters and resolutions in opposition from school boards, school business managers and teachers.

“There are many ways in which we can save money in the state budget or to be more frugal with the funds that we have available. However, I can unequivocally say that this bill is not one of those ways,” Finley-Sharon School Board member Lynn Carlson of Cooperstown told the House committee.

“In McLean County alone, we do not have any school that would meet the 475 threshold,” said Josh Ruffo, board president in the Turtle Lake-Mercer School District. “If we would have to share a superintendent in our area, we would have to consolidate with probably two, three or sometimes four school districts.”

School officials from southwestern North Dakota noted schools from two counties would have to partner up with a single superintendent to meet the threshold.

“Our school will potentially end up sharing one superintendent with three more schools,” said Amanda Petrick of Elgin, a member of the Elgin-New Leipzig School Board. “This would include two time zones, four counties and 2,704 square miles. In one week, we can expect to see our superintendent one day.”

She was among school board members testifying that they aren’t likely to see a cost savings because of the need to hire additional staff to compensate for the superintendent’s lost time and to pick up all the extra duties the superintendent fills.

“This bill would not change the workload necessary to run our school,” said Ty Dressler, board president for the Richardton-Taylor School District. “We would still need superintendent tasks performed and a qualified person to perform them. Qualified employees cost money, and removing one or forcing us to share one who is already spread quite thin just means we’d likely need to go out and hire another person and give him or her a different title. Like any other business, schools need a strong CEO – a leader. And if you remove our ability to attract, hire and retain the CEO of our school, you’re setting us up for failure.”

“What is the proper number of students that warrants a superintendent?” asked Taryn Sveet, secondary principal at Beach High School. “I have no idea, but please don’t take away mine.”

Rick Diegel, who serves as superintendent for both Linton and Kidder County schools, said districts have to be in the right situation with the right person to make a shared superintendent work.

“It’s not easy,” he said in describing his schedule with schools 60 miles apart. The savings is not huge because school principals and business managers get paid more for taking on more tasks, nor is everyone in the district happy with the arrangement, he said.

“I don’t think it’s a long-term solution. We’re going to do it next year, but I can’t imagine you would do this for five years or 10 years or have long-term initiatives.”

The state Department of Public Instruction presented its knowledge of six districts that share superintendents. In addition to Kidder County and Linton, sharing is occurring between Anamoose and Drake and between Flasher and Roosevelt in Carson.

Britney Ghandi, superintendent/secondary principal for Richland 44 in southeastern North Dakota, spoke of her district’s decision to consolidate three of its administrative positions into two.

“Serving as both a superintendent and a high school principal is not easy and is not always ideal,” she said. “Aside from the misconception of saved funds, this bill will drive away superintendents from North Dakota. Every state in our country is looking for qualified school district leaders and would happily take our best and brightest. Let’s keep our talent within the state while having important discussions, as have already been mentioned, with superintendents and their boards about how to get creative with finances.”

The committee took no action on the bill following the hearing.


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