BISMARCK - The superintendent of Ellendale's public school chuckled when asked about the challenges recruiting and retaining teachers there, a community of about 1,300 near the South Dakota border.
"It's difficult, yes," Jeff Fastnacht said.
He and other North Dakota education leaders are hopeful a revamped student loan forgiveness program will help alleviate teacher shortages in rural areas. About $2.1 million is available for the effort in the current two-year budget cycle, and state officials expect to begin accepting applications early next year.
Kirsten Baesler, the state's superintendent of public instruction, said the new program was created based on the recommendations of a task force that formed to address teacher shortages that were at a "crisis level." The state Legislature gave its approval earlier this year.
Democratic state Sen. Erin Oban, a former teacher from Bismarck, said lawmakers didn't put any new money into the program but "rearranged" its requirements.
"We've for a long time had a program, it's just never shown effectiveness because we've never tried to direct them into areas that we really need," she said.
Under the new state law, a person who accepts a position of "critical need" in a nonrural school district may receive up to $3,000 per year for up to four years. But somebody who accepts a critical need position in a rural school school district may receive up to $6,500 per year for up to four years.
The average student debt here for all programs is almost $28,000, according to data provided by the North Dakota University System.
"It's a program that's open to any school in North Dakota," said Nick Archuleta, president of the public employee and teacher union North Dakota United. "But ... it's not as difficult for some of the larger districts to recruit and retain teachers."
'Above and beyond'
Lower salaries and a lack of amenities in remote communities are two significant barriers to attracting teachers to rural schools, education officials said. But more than two-thirds of North Dakota schools are located in a rural area, dwarfing the national figure of 28.5 percent, according to a report from the Rural School and Community Trust.
Rural teacher salaries in North Dakota are more than $10,000 below the national average, the report said.
"Obviously we want the best people going into teaching no matter where they are," Oban said.
In the last decade, Ellendale has had to replace 32 professional educators, representing 9 percent turnover, Fastnacht said, but they've been "uniquely lucky" to go without any unfilled positions.
There are more than 200 unfilled teaching positions across the state, said Kay Mayer, director of outreach and engagement at the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.
"I think that inherently puts us behind the eight ball right away because we're lacking the number of bodies to fill the positions," Fastnacht said. "The big schools are not immune to this problem."
Ray Public School Superintendent Ben Schafer said they've flown in candidates from out of state, giving them a tour of a town that's home to an estimated 800 people northeast of Williston. The district will be pressured to find more teachers as elementary class sizes grow, he said.
Schafer said it's become "maybe a little bit" easier to recruit educators since the oil boom subsided. He said the school district owns 12 properties to help make rent more affordable for teachers.
"You kind of have to go above and beyond," Schafer said. "Even while you're doing those things you still end up with one candidate per position. You're choosing between a candidate and not filling the position."
But Schafer is hopeful the new student loan forgiveness program will encourage teachers to go without some of the "conveniences" of a larger city.
"I think a lot of times in the rural schools, all we're asking for is to give us a chance. And this is something that gets young people to give the rural school a chance," he said.