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Lawmakers must decide: Pay teachers or schools?

North Dakota lawmakers face a tough choice: pay schools or pay teachers. Education groups differ on which way to go, but agree the decision could be one of the more important made during the 2003 North Dakota legislative session. What legislators...


North Dakota lawmakers face a tough choice: pay schools or pay teachers.

Education groups differ on which way to go, but agree the decision could be one of the more important made during the 2003 North Dakota legislative session. What legislators decide will affect not only teachers, but also school boards, administrators and, some say, the state's future.

The background: Gov. John Hoeven's proposed budget calls for raising teacher compensation by $1,500 over two years at a cost of $31 million. It also would raise spending by $4 million on the traditional per-pupil payments known as foundation aid, which goes to school districts.

Many legislators say they support spending more on education, but they want the bulk of any additional money allocated to foundation aid.

Administrators and school board members generally agree.


"I'm all in favor of raising teacher salaries, but districts have other bills to pay, too," said Marcia Hall, superintendent of Central Valley High School in Buxton, N.D.

Placing too much emphasis on teacher pay could hurt districts' ability to buy equipment and maintain buildings, she said.

West Fargo Superintendent Chuck Cheney said schools don't neglect teachers when spending foundation aid.

"There's a perception that teacher salaries go up only if money goes directly to them, but that's not that case, at least in our district," Cheney said.

For their part, many board members worry about losing autonomy.

"Local control is best," said Dan Fremling, president of the Fargo School Board.

Besides, the Fargo district already does a good job of compensating teachers, he said.

Fargo leads the state with average total compensation of $56,331 for full-time teachers. The total consists of $41,341 in salary and $14,990 in benefits.


West Fargo ranks third, at $54,621, with $40,495 in salaries and $14,126 in benefits.

The state average is $46,668, with $36,326 in salary and $10,342 in benefits, according to state Department of Public Instruction numbers.

Dissatisfied teachers

Too many districts across the state do a poor job of raising teacher pay, said Gloria Lokken and Dakota Draper.

Lokken, of Bismarck, is president of the North Dakota Education Association. Draper, a teacher at Ben Franklin Junior High in Fargo, is active in both the NDEA and the Fargo Education Association.

If state aid doesn't go directly to teachers, many will never see it, they say.

"Every district has its own history of raising salaries. In some districts it's pretty bad," Draper said.

North Dakota teachers point out that they earn, on average, far less than their counterparts nationally, according to the National Education Association.


In 2001-02 teachers here earned an average $31,709 in 2001-2002, compared with the national average of $44,604.

North Dakota was ahead of only South Dakota, where teachers earned an average of $31,295.

But teacher pay is improving here, said Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

The 2001 state Legislature raised teacher pay by $3,000. The proposed $1,500 raise would come on top of that.

One sign of North Dakota's heightened commitment to funding education: The state spent 11 percent more on education per child in 2001 than 2000, according to Education Week. Only New Mexico, where per-child spending rose 11.4 percent in the one-year period, had a bigger increase.

To be sure, teachers are hardly the only North Dakotans underpaid relative to their peers nationally.

A Job Service North Dakota survey found that many occupations in the state pay less -- often 10 percent to 25 percent less -- than the national average. The survey found, for instance, that in 2001 clergy earned an average hourly wage of $15.14 hourly wage in North Dakota, $15.86 in Fargo-Moorhead and $16.23 nationally.

North Dakota teachers say they know many occupations pay less here.


"What we hear is, 'Yes, teachers here are underpaid. But so are the rest of us, so just suck it up,' " Draper said.

"I've never understood the logic of that," he said. "Don't I have the same right as every other North Dakotan to try to improve the quality of my life and my family's life?"

Harmless or not?

Some districts, including Fargo and West Fargo, have another reason to be concerned about the proposal to raise teacher salaries.

Both the Fargo and West Fargo districts received less state aid under the $3,000 per-teacher payment than they would have received from the foundation aid.

West Fargo's loss totaled about $240,000 over two years, Cheney said. "We definitely were hurt," he said.

Hoeven's budget provides

$1.3 million in "hold harmless" payments. Any school that loses money under the per-teacher payment, compared to what it would have collected under foundation aid, will be paid the difference.


Fremling said Fargo district officials will keep close tabs on the hold harmless provision.

"We're going to be watching out for our interests," Fremling said.

Cheney said he's pleased to see the hold harmless provision. But he worries that lawmakers, who face a projected $69 million budget deficit, will decide not to fund it.

Lawmakers will gather information and differing opinions on school funding, Flakoll said, then try to make a decision in the best interests of everyone.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jonathan Knutson at (701) 241-5530

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