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ND leaders: Proposed changes to education funding too drastic

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Bismarck, ND - State and local educational leaders oppose some changes in state funding proposed by a consulting firm, saying they could dismantle the broad-based middle- and high-school education model in North Dakota and force school districts to shell out tens of millions of dollars to build more elementary schools.

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The North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders say recommendations in a report by Picus Odden and Associates would force big cuts in the number of teachers for elective classes in favor of hiring teachers and aides for core subjects, such as reading, math, language arts, science, geography, history and world languages.

Large districts like Fargo or West Fargo could lose 22 teachers for health, physical education, career and technical education, music and art.

Medium-sized districts could lose six teachers, and small districts could lose two, said Aimee Copas, executive director of the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders,

Recommendations for smaller,

450-student elementary schools, and class sizes of 15 students per teacher in kindergarten through third grade would also require a blitz of school construction across the state, Copas said.

The West Fargo School District, which has stretched its resources to keep pace with a rapid rise in enrollment, would need to build three more schools to meet the guidelines in the Picus Odden report, Business Manager Mark Lemer said.

West Fargo’s newest schools have 24 classrooms, Lemer said.

Under the Picus Odden guidelines, “we were short 72 classrooms in grades

K-3,” he said.

Legacy Elementary in The Wilds subdivision will cost about $12.3 million when finished. Using that as a base, and not including inflation or land acquisition costs, three more schools would cost taxpayers in the West Fargo School District at least $37 million.

The proposed staffing changes, if reflected in any revised K-12 education funding formula, would boost elementary schools at the expense of the state’s middle and high schools, Copas told the Legislature’s Interim Education Funding Committee early this month.

“There is a tremendous shift in funding,” Copas said.

Special education

Lemer is a member of a North Dakota Association of School Administrators focus group that did an analysis of the Picus Odden report.

He said suggestions for funding special education also created concerns.

The state now pays the special education expenses for the most-profoundly affected students after the school districts pay the first $40,000 for each student, Lemer said. That’s the top 1 percent of costs.

School districts then use special education dollars in the funding formula to hire the special education teachers they need, Lemer said.

The Picus Odden report calls for switching to a system in which schools would hire one special education teacher for every 150 students.

That model also would have the state pay every dollar for the top 2 percent of special education students, Lemer said, which is a much more effective safety net than in place now.

Lemer said the worry of educators is that lawmakers could decide to pick and choose parts of the Picus Odden report. For example, that could mean sticking with funding just the top 1 percent of special education students, while limiting special education funding in the state per-pupil calculation to one teacher per 150 students.

“Now you have a problem. You have too few teachers” for the demands of special education, Lemer said.

As part of the focus on teaching core subjects, the Picus Odden report calls for more instructional coaches – teachers who mentor or teach other teachers – and teachers who specialize in early intervention for learning problems, Lemer said.

Those are good things, he said, but without extra funding, the costs have to be made up somewhere.

“(The) model is really focused on basic skills instruction and the core (classes). To afford that and deliver that, you have to give something up,” Lemer said. What is given up are elective classes, he said.

“At the middle level, we have a lot of elective opportunities for kids. (The Picus Odden) model would have the middle school structured more like the elementary schools,” he said.

The Picus Odden model has 20 percent of class time in the elementary and middle schools being devoted to elective courses, he said.

“What we have in the middle schools far exceeds what is in elementary schools,” which focus strictly on music, art and physical education, Lemer said.

Areas of agreement

The Council of Educational Leaders does see bright spots in the Picus Odden report’s suggestions, Copas said.

The state’s students would be helped with more funding for:

  •  Extended day programs.
  •  Summer school programs.
  •  English Language Learners programs.
  •  Alternative schools.
  •  Programs for gifted, talented and ambitious students.
  •  Aides.
  •  Assistant principals.
  •  Central office administration.
  •  Operations and maintenance.

The Council of Educational Leaders also supports funding for:

  •  Full-day kindergarten.
  •  Instructional coaches.
  •  Tutors.
  •  Substitute teachers.
  •  Librarians.
  •  Secretarial staff.
  •  Updating instructional materials and assessment testing.

Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, chairman of the interim committee, said he doesn’t think lawmakers want to make radical changes to the state’s education system.

“I doubt we will adopt the Picus report line by line,” Flakoll said.

“We’ll take the report and see if there are things that we can implement, and some guiding principles,” he said. “But I don’t envision a scenario where schools are going to have to make wholesale changes.”

Flakoll said he doesn’t believe the committee wants to set student-teacher ratios, but there is support for more funding to help at-risk students.

“I think our goal is to continue to make sure the dollars we invest are used as close as possible to the student,” Flakoll said.

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