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Bills could hurt Grand Forks schools funding, superintendent says

Dr. Larry Nybladh is the new Superintendent of schools in Grand Forks. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

A pair of bills in the North Dakota Legislature could hinder the ability of Grand Forks Public Schools to keep up with costs, according to district Superintendent Larry Nybladh.

House Bill 1324, which passed in the House of Representatives 82-9 on Feb. 22, would freeze the base rate of per-pupil state aid at $9,646 through the 2018-2019 school year. House Bill 1361, which passed in the House 56-34 on Feb. 15, would limit school districts' ability to increase the mill levy on existing properties more than 3 percent without voter approval starting in 2019.

"If you're looking at state aid being frozen, and then any restriction on the ability to raise the local levy, it's kind of a double whammy on the school board's ability to balance its budget," Nybladh said.

Increases in state aid and revenue from increasing property valuations are important for keeping up with rising costs such as competitive pay for district employees, staff development and new technology, he said. About 85 percent of the district's budget goes toward employee compensation.

Currently, increases from tax base growth without voter approval are capped at 12 percent. Nybladh said the valuation increase in Grand Forks' property tax base for the next year is projected at about 5 percent, meaning if HB 1361 were to go into effect right away, the school district would not capture 2 percent of the valuation increase.

"What have we used that for in the past? It's really been to try and run a quality educational program," he said.

HB 1324 is an effort to address the projected $670 million state budget shortfall without making cuts to K-12 education. Nybladh said the state will use money from the Common Schools Trust Fund and the Foundation Aid Stabilization Fund to keep the base amount of per-pupil aid constant. He said the amount has increased 3 percent each year for the last two biennia and said the freeze under the bill would have the same effect as a cut in light of any increased expenses.

"The net effect is that we're not going to be able to keep up with inflation," Nybladh said. "If we have inflationary increases, whether it's employee compensation or health insurance costs or utility bills, purchases for technology or textbooks ... we won't be able to use any state revenue to accommodate those inflationary increases."

If the freeze continues beyond two years, Nybladh said it could hurt the quality of K-12 education across the state long term and could result in measures such as deficit spending.

"The overall gratitude to the Legislature is that we're not being cut," Nybladh said. "And that they do have the accessibility to those rainy day funds to help keep us at least at zero. But of course the concern is how do we move forward in the next two years with trying to cover our inflationary costs without any kind of state aid increase?"

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