Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.



Education commission faces both challenges, turf battles

Few familiar with education deny the way North Dakota funds public schools needs improvement. But a committee appointed by the governor will tackle the more difficult question: What's the best way to fix it? The committee's 13 members will attemp...

Few familiar with education deny the way North Dakota funds public schools needs improvement.

But a committee appointed by the governor will tackle the more difficult question: What's the best way to fix it?

The committee's 13 members will attempt what hasn't been accomplished since the state's current funding formula was adopted in the 1970s: Find a better way to distribute state money so every child in the state has access to a quality education.

For the first time, all voices will sit at the same table.

The committee meets for the first time Wednesday in Bismarck. While looking forward to the discussions, nobody on the commission believes it will be an easy task.


"It's a strong and powerful group, but it will be a challenge," said Warren Larson, superintendent of schools in Williston. "Everybody has their perspective, but everyone is there for the kids. If we all keep that in perspective, we'll be successful."

Williston is one of nine school districts that filed a lawsuit against the state because they said its funding system is unconstitutional.

Gov. John Hoeven promised earlier this month he would create the board, in addition to recommending an increase of at least $60 million in new funding for K-12 education in the next biennium.

In exchange, the school districts agreed to temporarily halt the lawsuit. The school districts will drop the suit if the 2007 Legislature adopts the governor's education budget recommendations and accepts input from the committee.

The panel has 10 voting members, including Lt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who will lead the committee; three school superintendents, a school business manager, four legislators and Wayne Sanstead, the state superintendent of public instruction.

Larson and Paul Stremick of Grafton represent the plaintiff school districts as superintendents on the panel.

"We have 10 of the most knowledgeable people in the state on school funding," Dalrymple said. "We have people who think they are on the losing end of the deal and the people who can do something about it. This is as good as it gets."

Three non-voting members representing the state's education organizations also will sit at the table.


The group has set a goal of September as a deadline to forward any recommendations to the Legislature's interim Education Committee.

It's unlikely an overhauling of the school funding system will be part of those recommendations. That may take until the 2009 Legislative session to accomplish.

In the meantime, members hope they can agree on how the proposed $60 million increase would be divided between districts.

Coming to consensus will be no small task. The agreement calls for any forwarded recommendation to receive support from eight of the commission's 10 members.

And, even if the committee comes to an agreement, it doesn't guarantee those who can make it happen - the Legislature and the governor - will support it.

Finding that middle ground may be easier if everyone looks at the big picture and not how it affects a single school or district, said Stremick of Grafton Public Schools.

It might only happen, "if we don't look at a spreadsheet and don't see how it (any change) affects our individual districts," he said.

Historically, funding discussions have pit big schools against small, rural against urban and property-rich districts against the poor. What benefits one too often hurts the other.


"Each will come in with our own pre-conceived notions about what should or shouldn't happen," said Mark Lemer, business manager for West Fargo. "It's difficult to leave that baggage at the door."

For smaller, rural districts, the cost of transportation and finding ways to meet federal requirements for teacher quality often lead the list of expenses. Larger, urban school districts point to the expense of educating students with special needs or a lack of English skills.

Funding discussions also may lead to related education topics, such as how should the state define a quality education and what is the most efficient way to make sure students receive it.

"We're going to have to get to some of those nitty-gritty issues," Sanstead said.

The Legislature has tweaked the funding formula nearly every session since it first passed. But some say a different environment could be more productive.

David Monson is the House assistant majority leader and also a superintendent at Edinburg Public Schools in the northeastern corner of the state.

"The legislative process is a great one, but you have this melding and consolidation of different points of view," he said. "A lot of things need to happen to reach consensus, and sometimes that consensus isn't as good as you might have wanted it."

A group that focuses only on school funding might have more time and energy to explore the options and talk about what's best for the state, he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Erin Hemme Froslie at (701) 241-5534

What To Read Next
Get Local