Monday, September 04, 2006

Education plan too stingy for some, too generous for others

By DALE WETZEL Associated Press Writer
A new plan for a $60 million increase in North Dakota's aid to local schools is too generous to some districts, and stingy to some large and politically influential schools, legislators and education officials say. The problem is what to do about it."We have been talking about every option under the sun," said Mark Lemer, the business manager of West Fargo's schools and a member of a state education commission that has been drafting the plan. "It is brain-draining."The chairman of the Commission on Education Improvement, Lt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple, describes the proposed changes as a fine-tuning of the 53-page plan. It has been examined at length by school superintendents across the state since it was made public almost a month ago.

"We feel like the biggest part of this is being well accepted," Dalrymple said. "There are a number of options, and of course, ultimately you're trying to maintain as much support for the overall package as you can."The biggest part is the plan's goal of providing state payments to districts with less than North Dakota's average amount of taxable property to support each student. During the 2005-06 school year, the most recent for which data are available, the state average was $16,185.Most school districts rely on property taxes for a large chunk of their budgets. Those with less property to support each student - which are often called "property poor" schools - are pressured to raise their tax rates to keep up.The commission's plan sets aside $32 million of the proposed $60 million in added state spending for "equity" payments, meant to ensure that all schools reach the state average for money available to them. Schools that are above the average get no equity payment.It also abolishes the "mill levy deduct," which is a method of redistributing money from "property rich" districts - those with more taxable property supporting each student - to other schools with less property wealth.However, the added state spending, coupled with the elimination of the mill levy deduct, gives large aid increases to some schools with relatively low property tax rates.Two examples are Newburg United, in Bottineau County in north-central North Dakota, and Edmore, northeast of Devils Lake.A Department of Public Instruction analysis of the financial impact of the commission's initial plan showed Newburg United would receive $288,623 in state aid in the first year, an increase of 84 percent. Edmore's share would jump 73 percent, to $349,058.Both districts have general fund property tax rates well below the state average of 194 mills. Newburg's property tax rate is about 152 mills, while Edmore's is 147 mills.Commission members and school superintendents said such large differences in state aid increases should be moderated, and the savings redistributed. The commission is meeting Wednesday in Grand Forks, and Dalrymple said possible changes in the panel's initial plan will be discussed."We don't want to provide a windfall to a district that is not putting a decent number of mills on its own program," Dalrymple said.Changes to the commission's initial plan will probably benefit some of the larger school systems that get small increases in state aid from it. Under the current draft, Grand Forks and Minot both would see an increase of less than 2 percent.Scott Moum, the business manager for Minot's schools, said increased benefits should be more proportional to each district's share of North Dakota's public school enrollment."They're trying to simplify the (education aid) formula, but it has some shortcomings," Moum said. "I don't want to be critical of this. I understand what they're trying to do. I just think there is more tweaking that they need to do."


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