The Grand Forks Public School District aims to provide competitive pay to retain quality teachers, but for other districts in the state, diverse factors such as housing costs and competition for workers make educators’ salaries vary across North Dakota.
Responding to a recent report that included average salaries statewide, Grand Forks Superintendent Larry Nybladh said teacher salaries were higher because of longevity and education. Competitive pay is necessary to retain high-quality staff, which will have the biggest effect on student achievement, he said.
According to research by the Herald, Grand Forks pays teachers less than its peers in the state’s larger districts, though it pays administrators more.
To see how competitive salaries are in Grand Forks, the Herald compared the 2012-2013 median base salaries and compensation of teachers and administrators with eight other districts across the state.
Administrative salaries in Grand Forks were the third highest in the state at $103,290, falling behind districts in Fargo and Bismarck. But for teachers in the district, the median base salary was $50,200, which is lower than in Minot, Fargo, Bismarck, Dickinson and Jamestown.
The median is the midpoint from highest to lowest in the total salary range.
Reasons behind the pay differences vary. Nybladh has said one reason may be that retirements among higher-paid, older teachers have pulled down the district’s median pay as younger, lower-paid employees replace them.
But he and several other superintendents said the state funding formula fails to properly compensate fast-growing districts for new students and underestimates their salary needs.
Salaries and compensation
According to school districts’ data, the pay gap was wider among administrators than teachers, while benefits were more closely aligned for both groups, according to the Herald’s research.
Median base teacher salaries ranged from $42,750 in Devils Lake - the lowest amount - to $57,242 in Jamestown, while administrative salaries ranged from $76,538 in Devils Lake to $106,045 in Bismarck.
Median benefits, which included health insurance and retirement, for teachers ranged from a low of $14,630 in Grand Forks to $23,124 in Williston, while administrative benefits ranged from a low of $26,639 in Grand Forks to $46,610 in Williston. The calculation also included what some districts categorized as “other.” In the case of Grand Forks, that included the cost for worker compensation and other payroll-related costs.
(For Williston, the administrative benefits were considerably higher compared with the rest of the districts, stemming from what appeared to be higher-than-average contributions to the state retirement fund. The reason for this difference was unclear, and calls to the district went unanswered on Friday.)
All data were drawn from annual employee compensation reports that districts are required to submit to the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. Districts provided the information to the Herald. However, the reports didn’t include longevity, education level or full- or part-time status. The number of days teachers and administrators worked also varied according to district.
Several employees in all districts accrued a larger total salary because of activities such as coaching, serving on boards and substitute teaching, though this funding wasn’t included in the analysis.
In addition, some districts didn’t consistently include the same information for administrative salaries, so the Herald based those salaries only on directors, superintendents, assistant superintendents, principals and assistant principals.
Superintendents say challenges particular to each district affect employee pay.
Teacher salaries might be lower here compared with other districts because more experienced teachers are retiring, and younger teachers tend to move more, Nybladh said. Principals, on the other hand, may not be as mobile, and their salaries grow as a result, he said.
Although administrators in Grand Forks are among the highest paid in the state, Nybladh has discouraged increases to his own pay. This year, he requested the School Board freeze his salary for one year, and last year he received a 2 percent increase, the lowest of the negotiating groups.
In Dickinson, the base salary for a teacher is $51,750. Even though the median salary is higher than in Williston, Devils Lake and West Fargo, Superintendent Doug Sullivan said the oil boom has deterred potential candidates.
With housing prices skyrocketing, six to 10 teacher candidates have turned down jobs or interviews in the past two years, he said. Some positions go unfilled, even for essential classes such as science.
Students there are much more mobile, too. About 35 percent of his students have transferred out of his district and the percentage continues to increase, he said.
“Even though we’re paying higher wages, it won’t work, particularly because of housing costs,” he said.
In West Fargo, competition can be fierce and not just among districts, said Business Manager Mark Lemer. Candidates for jobs such as speech pathology have a broader market to choose from and likely would receive a bigger paycheck, he said.
Enrollment growth and funding
While pay levels varied among the districts examined by the Herald, Nybladh and other superintendents said the averages used in state funding calculations do not take into account the higher pay larger districts like Grand Forks have to give their more experienced teachers.
Last month, the Legislature’s interim Education Funding Committee met in Grand Forks to consider a report recommending an increase to per-pupil funding of $8,810.
However, superintendents criticized the report because the suggested increase for the biennium was based on outdated state averages for salaries. Average salaries in Grand Forks are about $6,000 higher than the report’s estimate, said Nybladh.
Larger districts such as Grand Forks tend to pay their teachers more than the state average identified in the report because of experience level and education, he said.
Superintendents also said the state formula, which pays districts based on previous year’s enrollment, isn’t sufficient for fast-growing districts. In West Fargo, student enrollment has grown so much this year the district received extra funding to help compensate. The district had 8,461 enroll this fall, according to the NDDPI.
The current formula also doesn’t take into account regional differences such as in the Oil Patch, where the cost of living is higher, Lemer said.
“One size doesn’t fit all,” he said. “Coming up with an average salary is not an equitable solution.”
Like other districts across the state, school board members there will be considering this year whether to raise their tax levy. Lemer said his board is reluctant to go beyond its current rate of 60 mills, even though the district could use the extra funding. It makes a difference in what programs, compensation and salary a district can offer, he said.
“Teachers might feel if we have access to additional revenue, we should exercise it and get salaries up more, but it’s a balancing act for our board,” he said. “They feel an obligation to teachers and employees, but also taxpayers.”
Click to view salaries by school district:
Note to readers: This information was submitted by districts to the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. However, in some instances, the data was inconsistent and incomplete.