Schools take issue with public education bill

‘Opportunity Act’ generates strong opposition

A North Dakota House bill that aims to free up $13 million a year for public education by mandating sharing of administrative costs is getting pushback from many of the state’s school districts.

House Bill 1251, sponsored by Rep. Matt Ruby, R-Minot, would require school districts with fewer than 475 students share a superintendent with another district or districts. The total compensation for a superintendent could not exceed 1.5% of a district’s total state and local revenue. In districts that share a superintendent, the total compensation also may not exceed 1.5% of the total state and local general fund revenue received by those districts. The bill is set for a hearing before the House Education Committee Wednesday.

“Overwhelmingly, our members are opposed to the bill,” said Alexis Baxley, executive director for the North Dakota School Boards Association.

“We have had a very large number adopt resolutions opposing the bill, sending in their testimony. And I would say the biggest concern is protecting our small rural schools.”

The board for Lewis & Clark School District, Berthold and North Shore Plaza, approved a resolution last week, opposing any legislation that takes away local control, including HB 1251.

Daniel Tyler, Surrey School Board president, said the Surrey board has not taken a position at this time but he personally opposes it.

“This inane piece of legislation reflects a fundamental ignorance on the part of the legislators that drafted it. It is a solution (that does not solve anything) in search of a problem,” he wrote in emailed comments. “The notion that deleting a Superintendent position, or as a tone-deaf animated piece of propaganda circulated by Minot Representative Matt Ruby stated, a ‘bureaucracy,’ will save money is patently false and fails to understand just how much a Superintendent does for the district, especially a small district like Surrey. We have 418 students and would be forced to participate in this asinine scheme if this bill passes.”

Tyler said the superintendent is a school board’s educational expert, who is relied upon to assess curriculum, maintain compliance with state and federal laws and provide direct, daily supervision of administrative staff. HB 1251 would remove local control from the citizens and place it with other communities that may not have the same values and perceptions, he said. He also sees potential for needing to hire more staff to assist with tasks that a shared superintendent would not have time to do.

Tyler cited a cost-sharing incentive program approved by the 2021 Legislature, in which districts declined to participate.

“That should be a clue that local communities do not want this and it solves nothing. This is not about paying teachers more, or putting students first. This is about wrestling control and freeing up tax dollars to spend as they want,” he said. “It should be up to the local community, citizens within a school district, to decide how their district is run and how much to spend on anything. Having Bismarck decide that only diminishes control of the people and dilutes district parents’ ability to affect change at their schools. This is such a ridiculous notion and represents abject ignorance of how small districts operate.”

Baxley said a number of school districts have tried sharing superintendents, and it hasn’t always worked well. The School Boards Association also has concern that forcing schools to share superintendents will be the first step towards consolidation in an effort to make that sharing operate more smoothly.

The South Prairie School District, with an enrollment of 535 students, opposes the bill despite even though it would not be required to share a superintendent, said Randy Korslien, South Prairie school board president.

The district foresees no cost savings if it were to share a superintendent because it would have to hire to fill tasks the superintendent no longer could do while serving another district, he said.

“Losing the ability to hire and set wages for our Superintendent is taking away our local control,” he wrote in emailed comments. “The question is always, what is next? Does the state eliminate all school districts and have all school employees become state employees with 1 set salary schedule and no local board control?”

Nine Republican legislators have joined Ruby on HB 1251 as co-sponsors, including Sens. David Hogue and Karen Krebsbach of Minot.

Perrie Schafer, chairman of the North Dakota Republican Party, issued a party statement in support of what is being called the Students & Taxpayers Opportunity Act.

“The Students & Taxpayers Opportunity Act represents a once-in-a-generation chance to free up tax dollars and send them directly back to students and teachers, as well as provide property tax relief to North Dakotans,” Schafer said. “We are tremendously proud of the high-quality education students receive in our school districts, and this important piece of legislation will only help North Dakota as it continues to experience record population growth. With these newly available resources, districts will be able to expand student learning opportunities and address challenges related to teacher recruitment and retention.”

Proponents say small schools account for 40% of students and 90% of superintendent salaries. They cite an example of a district with 25 students and a $222,000 superintendent’s salary. The example indicated a sharing arrangement with two other small schools and a mid-sized district would save $546,000 a year, the equivalent of $9,000 raises for every teacher.

Baxley said proponents aren’t presenting data clearly. For instance, the $222,000 listed for a superintendent’s salary includes the benefit package and any other contracted work that might exist in addition to serving as superintendent.

“Proponents suggest that sharing superintendents would save a significant amount of money, but the reality is that savings would be very minimal,” she said. “In most of the districts – the small districts that would be affected by this bill – superintendents are doing what we call combined roles. So a superintendent is also acting as a principal or the athletic director, perhaps both.”

Cutting superintendent costs by half but then needing to add a principal could more than wipe out the savings, she said.

Limiting superintendent salaries to 1.5% of the budget might work well in larger districts but it doesn’t work for smaller to mid-sized districts, Baxley added. She cited the Oakes school district, where 1.5% of the budget is $85,000 in compensation and benefits. A large number of teachers in the state would be at that overall compensation and benefits level, she said.

“I’m not sure how we’re going to attract quality candidates to those positions to take that extra responsibility if they could be getting similar pay by continuing on as a teacher or principal,” Baxley said.

The changes in HB 1251 would take effect in the 2024-25 school year. Low-enrollment schools that don’t enter a sharing arrangement by then would be placed into a sharing arrangement by the state Superintendent of Public Instruction.


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