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Published April 04, 2011, 09:30 PM

ND Senate Debates Higher Ed Shakeup

Combining oversight of North Dakota's public education from kindergarten through college under a single board would be akin to asking a college basketball coach to also run elementary, middle and high school basketball teams, the president of Minot State University said Monday.

By: Trevor Born, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Combining oversight of North Dakota's public education from kindergarten through college under a single board would be akin to asking a college basketball coach to also run elementary, middle and high school basketball teams, the president of Minot State University said Monday.

David Fuller was among several education officials who told the Senate Education Committee on Monday that a proposed constitutional amendment that have one agency oversee all public education would only make things more complicated for North Dakota schools, because the single department would have too much to look after. An 11-member advisory board would oversee the department.

Speaking before the start of the NCAA men's basketball championship, Fuller used Butler University as an example, asking what people would think if the college decided to put the coach in charge of elementary, middle and high school basketball teams in Indianapolis.

"If the coach says he's not experienced enough to coach at all those levels, and doesn't really have the time for such a monumental job, the school board could establish a system-wide basketball advisory committee to assist the coach," Fuller said. "They could schedule the games, meet compliance rules, oversee the improvement criteria and give the coach advice on how to deal with complaining parents."

"One can well assume the coach is not going to do very well under that system," he concluded.

Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, the House majority leader and a former teacher, is sponsoring the constitutional amendment under which a state Department of Education would replace the state Board of Higher Education and the superintendent of public instruction. The Department of Education would oversee all public school education administration, from preschool through college.

Voters would have to approve the amendment for it to take effect. Under it, the superintendent of public instruction would no longer be elected. The governor would appoint the new agency's director and the advisory board.

Carlson said overlapping administration between North Dakota's elementary, high school and university systems has inflated education costs without producing better-educated students.

"There is a significant bureaucracy in place, and maybe that's good, maybe that's bad," he said. "This would hopefully be able to streamline some of that bureaucracy and create a more seamless system."

Carlson said the state's citizens should decide if the school structure should be shaken up, since they are paying for the rising costs. The House approved the measure last week, and if the Senate follows suit, it would go on the ballot in November 2012.

"Is it a bold, big step? Yes, it is. But are we afraid to let the people vote on it? I don't think we should be," Carlson said. "It's a very straightforward question: For the $3.1 billion we're spending (on education every two years), do you believe the system of governance we have is the right one?"

The term of the incumbent superintendent, Wayne Sanstead, ends in 2012. The amendment says the person elected as superintendent then will serve for two years. The job would be eliminated on Jan. 1, 2015.

Critics said the makeup of the new board would be too political, and that removing the superintendent as an elected official would take power away from voters. North Dakota residents elect the superintendent of public instruction on a nonpartisan ballot, although Sanstead is an active Democrat.

"Citizens wouldn't have a clear path to voice their opinions," said Sanstead, who was first elected superintendent in 1984. "It would bury education in an ever-greater and, I believe, more potentially costly bureaucracy."

Carlson said residents would still have a say, because their elected legislators and governor would be more involved with choosing educational leaders than they are now.

The committee took no action on the proposed amendment Monday. It is HCR3046.

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