Deal halts suit
A deal struck to postpone a school funding lawsuit in North Dakota delivered promises, but no guarantees to the state's school districts. Gov. John Hoeven promised Tuesday he would recommend an increase of at least $60 million in new funding for ...
A deal struck to postpone a school funding lawsuit in North Dakota delivered promises, but no guarantees to the state's school districts.
Gov. John Hoeven promised Tuesday he would recommend an increase of at least $60 million in new funding for K-12 education in the next biennium.
He also created a 13-member board that will recommend to the Legislature ways to improve school funding.
In exchange, nine school districts agreed to halt the lawsuit they filed against the state. The trial was expected to begin next month in Williston.
The school districts will drop the suit if the 2007 Legislature adopts the governor's education budget recommendations and accepts input from the 13-member board.
"I'm pleased about the proposed settlement because everybody wins, especially the kids," said Warren Larson, school superintendent in Williston, one of the plaintiffs. "We'll work together to find an adequate and equitable solution."
The agreement doesn't mean the state believes the funding system is unconstitutional, nor does it mean the plaintiffs have changed their claims, said Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.
Those appointed to the governor's board, the North Dakota Commission on Education Improvement, said they believe they can find a solution that will be acceptable to everyone. Most believe it will be a long process but say finding a solution by consensus likely will be faster than going through the court system.
The commission will include representatives from school districts, the state education department, the legislature and the governor's office.
"This will not be an easy job. This isn't easy work at all," said Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo. "But having everyone there and knowing there's a pending lawsuit is a reminder we need to work hard on this."
States that can't find solutions to school funding lawsuits often spend years in litigation and the result often leaves everyone dissatisfied, said Rep. RaeAnn Kelsch, R-Mandan, head of the House Education Committee.
"When the courts have told legislatures what do to, it's not fun," she said.
Agreeing on terms to postpone North Dakota's lawsuit was a big step.
"In my wildest dreams I never thought this would happen - something to stay the litigation," she said.
For some legislators, the governor's plan falls short of a solution.
"It is a Band-Aid over a deep wound," said Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo. He is on the Senate's appropriations committee. "The Band-Aid is blue and the medicine is only topical. I was expecting much more."
He said the Legislature would have appropriated $60 million anyway. That's how much money schools need to address inflation and federal government requirements, he said.
The plaintiff school districts hope that by presenting a united front to the Legislature, they can persuade members to increase school funding and improve equity.
In the past, those representing education have presented different solutions, said Steve Swiontek, school superintendent in Devils Lake, one of the plaintiffs.
"If you put everyone in the room working together toward the same goal, maybe we can accomplish something," he said.
The plaintiff school districts have spent more than $560,000 on the lawsuit over the past two years, he said.
For districts not involved in the lawsuit, the future is more hazy.
Until details of how the$60 million will be distributed are revealed, it's too early to tell how it might benefit Fargo, said Dan Huffman, assistant superintendent of business services.
Mark Lemer, who said he was asked to represent school district business managers on the governor's board, said the plan is on the right track.
"But it all depends on how the money gets allocated," he said. Lemer is the business manager for West Fargo Schools.
For 2003-05, the Legislature approved $38 million in new funds. For 2005-07, it approved nearly $33 million, according to data from the state Department of Public Instruction.
The state's budget for education is about $700 million for the 2005-07 biennium.
Sen. Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, said a large surplus will make it possible for legislators to consider the governor's plan. At the end of the fiscal year in June, state officials said the surplus was at about $152 million.
"Elementary and secondary education is near and dear to our hearts," Grindberg said. "It's always first on our priority list."
But he also wants a discussion about funding to be tied to the way districts operate schools.
Any discussion about funding equity means the Legislature will also have to look at the demographic challenges facing the state, primarily a decline in students.
"It's a sensitive area," he said. "But let's have this group tackle some of the issues that are linked to this (school funding) or else we'll be back with another lawsuit in six to eight years."
Schools that filed the lawsuit are: Devils Lake, Grafton, Williston, Des Lacs-Burlington, Hatton, Larimore, Surrey, Thompson and Valley City.
Forum reporter Janell Cole contributed to this story. Readers can reach Forum reporter Erin Hemme Froslie at (701) 241-5534