BISMARCK — Up until a week before fall classes were set to start, Beulah (N.D.) Public School District had an opening for a high school English teacher.
The district filled one of its two English teacher openings this summer but then didn't get a single applicant for the other one, according to Superintendent Travis Jordan.
Luckily, a week before classes started last month, someone applied for the other vacancy and was hired. Now, Jordan just has to fill an opening for a home economics teacher.
Meanwhile, the stack of papers on Julie Lawyer’s desk represents only a portion of the case files she tends to as Burleigh County state’s attorney.
“These aren’t as serious; not urgent,” she said, taking the top one. It’s a drug case, as are so many that come through her office, and this one is in the pile mostly because there’s no victim, no restitution needed, and nobody is in any immediate danger. But it, like the others in the stack, has to get handled.
“We’ll get to it.”
Schoolhouses and attorney’s offices with employment shortages aren't a new issue in North Dakota and aren't unique to the state. Recent studies say the shortage is getting worse nationwide.
By the numbers
The national average starting teacher salary was $39,249 in the 2017-18 school year, while in North Dakota the average starting salary was $38,611, according to the National Education Association.
North Dakota public school districts each fall report the number of teacher openings they have. The deadline to report this year is Sept. 19, so it's not yet known how many positions are unfilled.
Last school year, districts reported 145 teacher vacancies out of roughly 11,200 positions, according to data from the state Department of Public Instruction. This is an increase from a decade ago, when there were about 40 openings.
Still, State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said the number of unfilled positions has improved since when she was first elected in 2012 and since the state's latest oil boom — when teachers were leaving the classrooms for other "lucrative opportunities" in the oil industry.
"In North Dakota, that has gotten better because our energy sector has stabilized. ... This (teacher shortage) is not an issue that's going away; it's a national issue.”
Applications at U.S. law schools accredited by the American Bar Association peaked in 2004 at 100,600. That number declined in recent years, rebounding to 60,700 in 2018.
And bar exam passage rates nationwide have fallen in recent years. Statistics from the National Conference of Bar Examiners shows the overall nationwide passage rate was 69% in 2009 and 54% in 2018. Those taking the exam for the first time fared better, passing at a rate of 79% in 2009 and 69% in 2018.
The decrease in application numbers is likely related to a number of factors. Most attorneys fresh out of college don’t walk into high-paying jobs, and the average student debt from law school in 2016 was $145,500, up from $82,400 in 2000, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics.
The workforce shortage doesn't impact just the workers — it also can affect the pace of justice itself.
When state's attorneys find themselves with a heavy workload, they have little choice but to handle certain cases first, pushing nonviolent cases back to handle those involving injury. And they don't have as much time as they'd like to assist people convicted of drug crimes in finding treatment.
Similar situations exist in public defender offices. The North Dakota Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigents currently has openings for a legal assistant, an administrative assistant and three attorneys at its offices across the state. At full staff, there would be 40 full-time employees in the agency’s seven offices.
In the last fiscal year, the agency handled more than 15,000 case assignments, and each case assignment often can include more than one charge against a person.
Pay is the biggest obstacle in recruiting and retaining attorneys, commission Deputy Director Travis Finck said.
“Our attorneys on average are paid less than their counterparts in the state’s attorney offices or comparable state government positions,” said commission Deputy Director Travis Finck, and they also lag in pay for senior attorneys.
Loan forgiveness goes away
Though state lawmakers passed a couple of bills this past session to help with the teacher shortage, it's possible one bill they passed could do more harm. Lawmakers repealed the state teacher loan forgiveness program, despite the program being viewed by many as a way to mitigate the teacher shortage.
In 2017, lawmakers revised the program to allow districts to apply for up to two teachers to each receive loan forgiveness amounting to $3,000 to $6,500 per year for up to four years.
Rep. Mark Owens, R-Grand Forks, chairman of the House Education Committee, said legislators heard about issues with the program, including districts not being able to choose which two teachers should receive loan forgiveness because all teachers qualified under the program and there wasn't enough money to go around.
Owens said lawmakers this year asked principals and superintendents for a solution to the funding shortfall, but they didn't hear anything. Instead, lawmakers approved a bill to phase out the teacher loan forgiveness program over the next three years, so those who were promised money will continue to receive it.
"What we really need to do ... is raise teachers' salaries so that then we can entice people to come to North Dakota to teach," Owens said.
Jordan said he used the teacher loan forgiveness program to try to persuade teachers to come to Beulah or to stay.
"It hurts," he said of the program being canceled. "College is not getting any cheaper, and teachers are not making a lot more money."