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Compensation for school boards varies among North Dakota districts

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - School board members in Fargo are likely the highest-paid in North Dakota, but one member said that should be different.

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – School board members in Fargo are likely the highest-paid in North Dakota, but one member said that should be different.

Jim Johnson, a member of three committees and an education cooperative, is paid $1,000 a month. He said he spends an average of 51 hours per month on board-related activity.

But that doesn't include time for legislative sessions he attends, contract negotiation meeting work and responding to emails and calls from parents, which happen "frequently, to say the least," he said. One year, he testified before the Legislature in Bismarck six times.

He said board members should be paid nothing for their public service or districts should "really look at what comparable pay is for other elected positions that have similar workloads."

"I'm not unhappy with what they're paying, but I think it does restrict some people from the ability of choosing to run, especially once they understand the time commitment," he said.

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Regardless of compensation levels--and public complaint over big issues--board members say they're happy to do the job. And in many cases, they said the pay hasn't deterred candidates from stepping up to be on their local boards.

School board pay varies among the state's largest 14 districts, though smaller ones typically offer less. At least one district pays nothing at all. Other compensation, such as travel, special meetings and annual raises, also varies.

According to the National School Boards Association, which represents more than 90,000 local school board members, fewer than 40 percent of members in larger districts work less than 40 hours per month in return for a modest salary. Seventy-five percent of small districts offer no salary to school board members.

One such district is in Colfax, N.D. With about 253 students, Richland No. 44 School District only covers travel to attend meetings and attendance at state conferences.

Echoing board members at other districts, Lisa Amundson said she's not in it for the money.

"For me, it's about giving back and being part of the community, being involved," she said. "Money was never the motivation for it."

Varying workloads, salary

Compensation doesn't exactly correspond to district size in North Dakota, said business managers.

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Bismarck Public Schools, the largest district in the state, pays members a flat fee of $9,000, falling $3,000 behind Fargo Public Schools, the second-largest district. West Fargo Public Schools, the third-largest district in the state, paid their members $4,460 last year. Grand Forks pays its members $4,000 a year, but members can reject the funding, according to district policy.

Districts ranged in student population from 1,090 to 11,989 among the 14 largest.

Methods of payment and mileage compensation differ. Some districts pay per meeting, others pay a flat fee. Some districts reassess compensation every year, others haven't done that for more than a decade. Most districts cover travel costs for members who attend state conferences.

Workloads are not consistent. Several said they work 10 or more hours per week on board activity, but that didn't include attendance at optional school events or time spent fielding questions from the public. Legislative sessions sometimes require multiple overnight trips to Bismarck for members, and teacher contract negotiation periods can last for months, especially if the two sides reach impasse and call for state involvement, they said.

In Bismarck, President Heide Delorme said she spends about 50 hours a month on board duties, including attending meetings and dealing with emails and phone calls. Board presidency--which at $9,000 for the year pays the same as board members--requires a bit more time than regular membership, she and others said.

Over the past three years, her board has reviewed more than 200 policies, drawn new boundary lines for schools and opened three new schools, as well as managed continued population growth, Delorme said.

"I think our compensation is fair but not excessive," she wrote in an email. "I think the key when looking at board member pay is to be fair, keeping in mind most work other full-time jobs and being on the school board requires time away from those other jobs and our families. But (it shouldn't) be excessive, since it is the taxpayers' money being spent."

In Colfax, board member Dan Haverland said he spends an hour or two on board-related duties per week for no salary. A member of the negotiation committee--one of three committees he sits on--he said teacher negotiations this year lasted less than 12 hours, "which isn't bad at all."

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The lack of pay hasn't caused any problems, he said. The district previously paid members $10 per meeting four to five years ago but they have since voted against offering compensation, he and the district business manager said.

"The fact that no one's really interested in (raising or returning) to the $10 kind of shows we believe it's an important donation of our time to do this job, and everybody kind of agreed with that," Haverland said.

In Williston, which pays its members $3,000 per year, the last school board election drew 10 candidates for three openings, according to Business Manager Jodi Germundson. In Mandan, members are paid $2,400 per year, less than Williston. Many members run for reelection, said Business Manager Christi Schaefbauer.

"We don't really get a lot of interest otherwise," she said. "It's a big commitment and it's not a lot of money."

Wide-reaching decisions

School board decisions affect thousands of children and can involve millions in taxpayer funding.

Years ago, when the Fargo school district decided to relocate Trollwood Performing Arts School to Moorhead, decisions over operating a district facility in a different state fell to Johnson and other school board members, he said.

"That started long before I was on the board, but it came to fruition during my time on the board. With it came all kinds of extra challenges," he said. "Throughout the course of that journey, there were lots of hiccups--most of which are behind us now--and the program is running smoothly now. But it was one of the more frustrating things I've had to deal with."

After the 1997 flood in Grand Forks, the school board approved the construction of two new schools--Phoenix Elementary School and South Middle School. The undertaking was significant, and the board's working hours "really ramped up" then, said board member Bill Palmiscno. He said he's approaching his 23rd "and final" year on the board, for which members get paid $4,000 per year.

"In my time, we've been able to provide kids with quality facilities," he said. "I've always said that I truly believe the kids of Grand Forks are the city's biggest asset."

More perspective

Some say their perspective on what it means to be a school board member has changed.

Devils Lake School Board President Steve Halldorson--who receives a $1,200 fee plus $50 per meeting--referred to himself as "very naive" when he became a board member.

"All the things you don't stop and think about when you run for school board--you've got district complaints, parent questions, hiring a new superintendent, all of these things," he said.

Grand Forks School Board President Doug Carpenter said he has a better perspective on how decisions are made. The board appointed Carpenter, a former critic of the board, to a seat in 2013.

His participation at various committee and regular meetings offers something "you can't get unless you're there" or by just reading the newspaper, he said.

In Fargo, Johnson, like others, believes public schools are the most important government entity in the country, he said. He's thought he should free up more time to devote to his regular job, but he and his children were fortunate enough to get a "good, quality education through public schools," he said.

"I view it as an obligation to give back to the community," he said.

School board pay in North Dakota's 14 largest districts, by city and student population:

Bismarck--population 11,989--$9,000 flat fee

Fargo--population 11,145--$1,000 per month, travel for board business.

West Fargo--population 8,970--$4,460 last year, travel for board business. Members receive same percent raise as staff. Percentage is determined annually.

Minot--population 7,723--$400 per month, travel for board business.

Grand Forks--population 7,206--$4,000 per year, travel.

Mandan--population 3,478--$2,400 per year, travel.

Dickinson--population 3,401--$100 per month, $50 per meeting.

Williston--population 3,371--$3,000 per year, travel for board business.

Jamestown--population 2,156 --- $200 per month, president $250 per month. Additional meetings $40 each.

Belcourt--population 1,679--No information available

Devils Lake--population 1,623--$1,200 fee, plus $50 per meeting, travel.

Watford City--population 1,325--$140 per meeting, $75 for committee meetings. Amounts will be reassessed this month.

Wahpeton--population 1,217--$50 for every meeting, travel.

Valley City--population 1,090--$4,450 per year, travel.

Data from district business managers and superintendents. Student body population based on fall 2014 enrollment from the North Dakota State Department of Public Instruction.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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