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Report says ND should up school funding

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North Dakota should consider hundreds of dollars of increased per-pupil funding for the 2013-15 biennium to help account for higher fringe benefit and pension costs, according to a report by Picus Odden & Associates.

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The firm, which evaluates school finances for districts nationwide, summarized reasons behind the increase Monday for the Legislature’s interim Education Funding Committee, which met at UND to hear whether anything should be changed to the state’s current formula of $8,810 per student.

This is the first time the firm assessed North Dakota’s funding formula since 2007. Since the Legislature simplified the formula last year, the firm is now checking if it’s still adequate, according to the report.

The report recommended specific changes regarding employee health benefits, professional development days and at-risk students, including English language learners that make up a growing population in Grand Forks. For the most part, North Dakota districts should retain its current approach to funding, according to the report.

Allan Odden, lead partner of the firm who presented the report, said he’d met with several state superintendents and other school officials to help reassess the funding formula.

“We’re not making any suggestions for dramatic change,” he said. “I think this will give you an opportunity to streamline your system.”

The report

The current amount of $8,810 per student for 2013-2014 and $9,092 for 2014-2015 should be recalibrated to $9,347 and $9,442, respectively, according to the report.

The adjustment is due to rising pension benefits, the firm’s initial miscalculation of fringe benefit rates and new health care cost estimates, said Odden.

Superintendent Larry Nybladh found some assumptions in the report mismatched with what was happening in Grand Forks.

For example, the average teacher salaries, which were based on salaries in the 2012-2013 year and included in the recalibration, are typically much lower than those in Grand Forks, he said. The district pays more than average in part based teachers’ education levels and the fact that they typically stay longer, he said.

But overall, he thought it was “very positive that the state legislative funding committee asked for this study,” he said.

General suggestions on classroom sizes, the ratio of teachers to students and other information were also included in the report. One specific recommendation was for districts to require a minimum of 10 days for professional development in teacher contracts by 2020, with districts phasing in one day per year. Grand Forks teachers currently receive five days of paid professional development.

More professional development is needed for teachers as districts across the nation raise academic standards to help students prepare for college, Odden said. While committee members asked for further details on how it could work — the state covers funding for professional development but districts aren’t required to specify how they use it — he said that would be the responsibility of each district.

Another report recommendation was to increase funding for at-risk students, including English language learners, which Sen. Tim Flakoll, current chairman of the committee, estimated would cost $60 million.

This would support extended-day programs, more staff and tutoring, which Superintendent Larry Nybladh embraced. Right now, 65 percent of the cost for district ELL students is currently picked up by the district, he said. 

Future

The state first hired the firm in 2006 to assess its funding model after nine districts sued North Dakota over equity in school funding.

This led to the formation of the legislative education committee and Flakoll’s sponsorship of a Senate bill in 2007 that revised the state school aid program. Last year, the Legislature simplified the formula, replacing one that used a two-part approach to determine state aid and involved a complex system of property tax reductions to a foundation formula that equalizes funding among districts.

Flakoll said he’d like to see a bill incorporating some of the report’s suggestions, but it’s a long process. He said legislators are willing to invest dollars in meaningful ways that help with student achievement.

“We’d like to look at maybe staging some of these things in so that both the school district and the budget have a chance to properly react,” he said.

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