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With fast food workers making more than substitute teachers, Fargo Public Schools struggles to compete

Fargo Public Schools board members are concerned they won't be able to help the situation after a new law put a 12% cap on mill levies.

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McDonald's signs promoting up to $17 an hour are on display on Friday, Jan. 21, 2022, at 1220 19th Ave. N, Fargo.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum
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FARGO — Driving past a McDonald's on South University, a flashy help wanted sign caught Robin Nelson’s attention. As a board member for Fargo Public Schools, the $17 an hour advertisement came as a shock.

Part-time help or short-term substitute teachers in Fargo’s public schools earn $112 a day, which averages to $16 an hour. Beginning paraeducators earn about $15 an hour. There are bonuses and perks that the district offers, but base pay is still lower than a fast food worker’s hourly wage.

And that is a troubling fact for Nelson and other board members.

“How are we going to continue to compete with those types of salaries?” Nelson said.

“I have sincere and growing concerns about the financial limitations imposed on our school districts from the state legislative level and how those limits will hamper districts' ability to provide competitive salaries, especially in today’s job market,” Nelson said during a recent school board meeting.

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The state legislature limits how much school districts can raise property taxes through mill levies, as public school systems in North Dakota are funded in part through property taxes.

With an annual budget of about $197 million and an average cost per pupil of $14,491.29 as of last school year, 57% of the district’s funds come from the state, 29% comes from local property taxes, 11% comes from the federal government and 3% from grants and other sources, said district spokeswoman AnnMarie Campbell.

During the last legislative session, House Bill 1388 placed a 12% cap on the amount of monies districts can receive from mill levies, which are defined as the number determined each year by dividing the total amount of dollars needed by each taxpayer-funded entity from the property tax by the total taxable value of the City of Fargo.

Fargo Public Schools is currently capped at 127 mills and is levying 126.78 mills, a number that was approved by voters on March 7, 2017. This approval, however, has a lifespan of 10 years, and if new approval is not received, the district “would no longer receive additional general fund tax dollars based on the true assessed value of individual property as the city grows or property values change,” Campbell said.

Sen. Donald Schaible, R-Mott, was the main sponsor of HB 1388 and said the bill was an attempt to help schools with declining enrollment by focusing on a number of issues, including payments based on the numbers of students in individual buildings, which this year is set at $10,237.

“There are no real surprises in there that would affect Fargo,” Schaible said. “There was nothing that 1388 did that changed their world.”

The problem as he saw it, Schaible said, was that as property values increase, so does the amount of dollars school districts receive through voter-approved mill levies.

“If evaluation goes up higher so that it generates 12% more income in that category, then they would have to lower their mills. The only cap in place is they can only receive 12% new money from taxes. To get more than that, they have to get a vote of the people,” he said.

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The law helps ensure school districts don’t inadvertently raise taxes as property values rise, he said.

“Many school districts have been able to get this 12% extra money and say they didn’t raise their taxes. In my opinion, they consciously knew that they were getting more money from the people, so they were raising taxes but they didn’t have to say it that way,” Schaible said.

But when local fast food restaurants are paying employees more than the public school district is paying substitute teachers — at a time when districts across the nation are facing severe worker shortage, wage inflation and a virus that is sending teachers home — the mill levy cap still worries board members like Nelson.

The shortage of available substitute teachers prompted board member David Paulson to address the pay issue during a recent board meeting.

“I know that this is a problem shared by West Fargo and Moorhead, as well, but for years and years we’ve had this gentleman’s agreement where West Fargo, Moorhead and Fargo all pay the same. I empathize, … but this board’s priority is the Fargo school system,” Paulson said.

“I do not understand why we’re not offering more money. If we up that ($112) to $175, maybe we’d attract more people," he said. "We’re willing to pay anywhere between $225 to $450 per day for these long-term subs, why can’t we boost this up to $175?"

Raising salaries would have to be reflected in the budget, which means the dollars would have to come from somewhere else.

“We are somewhat hamstrung as to raising our teachers' and all of our educators' pay. I want to put us on alert,” Nelson said, adding that the cost per student in Fargo is higher than the state average because special education students cost more.

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“Fargo is a magnet due to the services offered,” Nelson said. “The $10,237 is a baseline calculation. Each student is plugged into a weighted formula using that baseline.”

Rebecca Knutson, board president, said schools across the nation are competing for dollars and staff.

“Even when there are dollars available, that doesn’t mean that there are people, and that is a challenge all of across the nation are dealing with. Whether it’s McDonald's or a school district or another company that raises their wage to a higher level, then it causes a shortage and more competition for the next school or the next business,” Knutson said.

“Funding education is a challenge overall. By law, we need to provide education to our students, and we need staff in order to do it, and they deserve to be compensated in a professional manner, at a level that recognizes their profession that they are in,” she said.

Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, who recently announced she will retire from the Legislature, said the state-legislated cap on mill levies stems from an organized attack on public education.

While she doesn’t think all of her colleagues are connected to a “larger, broad attack on undermining public education and our trust in it,” she said education shouldn’t be used as a political football.

"I absolutely believe we will set ourselves up for failure if we keep buying into this stuff meant to divide people and literally destroy public systems that are not meant to make money. They are meant to serve people," she said. “It really makes me sad. I believe educators are faced with more challenges now than they have ever been."

While the conversation about higher wages is just beginning at the school board level, Knutson defended the district’s purchase of the R.D. Offutt building at 700 Seventh St. S. near Hawthorne Elementary, a process that began in June 2019 with $7.3 million from the district's building fund.

“We really needed that building to provide the service to the growing needs that the community expects of the school district. The building we were in really was no longer serving us to the potential we needed it to,” Knutson said.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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