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ND bill aims to cap K-12 superintendent pay, merge leadership of small districts

The bill would set a minimum number of students per superintendent and cap salaries for the position based on tax revenue.

North Dakota Legislature
The North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck. Photo illustration by Troy Becker
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FARGO — Republicans in the North Dakota Legislature introduced a bill Tuesday, Jan. 10, to combine administration at smaller public school districts and to cap superintendent salaries.

Called the Students and Taxpayers Opportunity Act, the bill calls for one school superintendent for a minimum of 475 students, which would put multiple small school districts under one superintendent. If the bill is passed, proponents said it would save the state up to $13 million each year.

The bill has already stirred up fiery opposition from Democrats, who say the proposition is micromanagement, and the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders, which claims the idea is government overreach.

North Dakota has 170 school districts, with nearly 60% of all students in nine districts and the other 40% of school-aged children attending smaller schools that account for 90% of superintendent salaries in North Dakota, according to Rep. Matt Ruby, R-Minot, who introduced the bill.

If the bill, now known House Bill 1251, became law, Ruby argued that property taxes would be lowered, learning opportunities would increase and teacher pay could rise by 9%, he said in a press release.

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“Every session, we’ve had a discussion on teacher pay, and at the same time I see superintendents making six figures and teachers scraping by,” Ruby said.

He said he has seen teachers with classrooms of 25 students and superintendents with a district the same size, but “the pay discrepancies really frustrated me,” Ruby said.

“Some administrators are underworked and overpaid, but this is definitely not across the board,” he said.

A video released by legislators supporting the bill claimed the state has districts with as few as 25 students led by a superintendent with an annual salary of $222,000. Combining leadership in the smaller districts would help the state save money, they said.

“These savings would be enough to reward all the dedicated, hardworking teachers in the districts with a $9,000 raise,” lawmakers said in the video .

So far, Ruby said he has received good support for the bill. His nine co-sponsors come from both chambers of the Legislature.

“I don’t want to say I have a slam dunk, but I got a good swath of people who really believe in the idea, and it might not be everything they want yet, but it’s a start,” he said.

The cap on salaries for superintendents would not exceed 1.5% of total tax revenue per district, Ruby said, and if the bill becomes law, it would eliminate more than 60 superintendent positions.

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Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, said the bill was “overreach on part of the state’s government to tell districts what size they are and what salaries they want for the superintendents. I would be opposed to that."

Aimee Copas, executive director of the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders, said the bill undermines smaller school districts by not allowing them to hire their own administrators and that the claim the law would save money may be a false narrative.

“Eliminating about 70 positions integral to schools is disheartening. Approximately 68 superintendents are doing two jobs, superintendent and principal,” Copas said, adding that she knows others who are also working as teachers, basketball coaches and even in snow removal.

“In a small school district, it is all hands on deck to make it work,” she said. Eliminating administration may increase other positions inside a district, which could become even more expensive, she added.

The North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders is also always looking for out-of-state talent, Copas said.

“And this could be a deterrent to hiring out-of-state, qualified talent. I’m not sure if many people want to dip their toe into North Dakota if this is what is going on,” she 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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