- Associated Press - Monday, May 8, 2017

EDMORE, N.D. (AP) - In the post oil boom era, North Dakota legislators have been forced to make broad cuts to the budget, which in turn will affect service providers across the state.

Public schools are no different, and the message from Kirsten Baesler, superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction, is that schools, especially those with declining enrollment numbers, may need to work on becoming more efficient.

“I think the intent of the legislature is to have school districts that have declining enrollment to look for efficiencies,” Baesler said. “Can they deliver more of their classes online? Do they want to combine administrative services: instead of having a full-time superintendent, should they have a part-time superintendent? The state’s emphasis for declining enrollment schools has been to have them seek out ways to become more efficient.”

The Devils Lake Journal (https://bit.ly/2pLZJFz ) reports that declining enrollment is a problem because schools now get more money per student due to a formula change that gives property taxpayers a break, putting more of the responsibility for school funding on the state.

That, paired with a cap on taxes levied to support a school’s general fund, means that the impetus is on schools to adjust to the new reality if enrollment drops.

“The reason that it’s important not to have declining enrollment is because with the new funding formula, the state shifted the number of dollars that went to students,” Baesler said. “Our state became a funding system that became very student-rich. So now, just under $10,000 is paid per student to a school district, on average.”

That means one lost student can cost a school about $10,000. While larger schools can absorb that loss - to a point - small rural schools like Edmore, whose superintendent, Frank Schill, spoke to the Journal about his concerns about Edmore’s future earlier this month, the loss of a few students could result in major funding issues.

In Schill’s view, that could mean Edmore School may not be around in six or seven years.

However, Baesler says that the formula could again change if legislators find they don’t have the stomach for widespread school closings should they come to pass.

“I don’t know if our legislators would get to a point where they’re seeing many of our rural school districts close because they simply can’t make the bottom line float anymore. I’m not sure what the reaction of our legislative body would be,” Baesler said.

She also stressed that DPI doesn’t set policy, but rather implements it. Still, Baesler has nearly three decades of experience in the education field and says that she’s seen the formula change before when the need arose.

“Part of a bill that was passed creates a task force of legislators to specifically study the formula,” Baesler said. “This will be a significant portion of our legislative study, to take a look at how the funding formula is adversely impacting some of our smaller school districts with wide, large geographic areas. (Schools) that are serving students where it really doesn’t make sense to close down that school district because the number of miles that they would need to travel to get to the nearest school really isn’t feasible for young students.”

In fact, the current formula was devised in response to a study that revealed funding issues with the state’s public schools.

“Our current funding formula structure is a result of a study that led to the current formula, the changes that we needed to make to balance the difference between our property-poor districts - what used to be western, southwestern North Dakota - and our property-rich districts, those districts in Cass County that have that rich soil,” Baesler said. “There were definitely some property-rich, property-poor inequities. That study led to some significant changes.

“I’ve been in education about 28 years, so I’ve seen it (formula changes) happen twice before,” she added. “My most recent experience is that these types of studies done well and done right do lead to improvements in all of our school districts.”

Baesler said that the study is scheduled over the next two legislative sessions - four years total. Though the trend at Edmore and other schools is an enrollment downswing, she pointed out that other rural schools are either holding steady or thriving.

“For the most part, in the last five years, the school districts in our state have been holding even or increasing the numbers of students. We certainly aren’t in the dire straits of declining enrollment that we were a decade or two ago when we were seeing the lowest student enrollment in the state’s history,” Baesler said.

“We are on an increasing enrollment trend right now, and we do have some robust, healthy rural school districts. Not all of our school districts are holding even or increasing, but the majority of them are at least holding even.”

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Information from: Devils Lake Journal, https://www.devilslakejournal.com


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