The average cost of educating a student in a North Dakota public school varies widely-and is affected by factors over which school officials and board members have little or no control, officials say.
In northeast North Dakota, for example, the average per-pupil cost of education ranges from $8,139 in Thompson, N.D., to $30,525 at Fordville-Lankin, N.D., for the 2015-16 school year, according to data compiled by the state's Department of Public Instruction.
In that school year, the highest per-pupil cost in North Dakota was $35,910 for Twin Buttes School District at Halliday in western North Dakota, followed by the Fordville-Lankin School District.
The lowest in the state was $7,794 for Nedrose School District, Minot, followed by the Thompson School District.
In recent years, Grand Forks' figures for per-pupil education costs have hovered between $11,000 and $12,000 while that figure for the Drayton School District has swung from $13,359 in the 2011-12 school year to $17,568 in 2013-14 to $14,699 in 2015-16.
For all school districts, these figures only reflect instructional costs-those expenses that are related to the instruction in the classroom and special and vocational education programs, said Ed Gerhardt, business manager for Grand Forks Public Schools.
They do not include expenses such as transportation, extracurricular and sports activities, food or funds used to retire school debt.
School districts are required to submit an annual financial report to the North Dakota DPI, which calculates the average cost of education per student in each district.
The report is not due until Sept. 15, but the preliminary figure for 2016-17 for Grand Forks Public Schools is $12,276, Gerhardt said.
At Fordville-Lankin, with the second-highest per-pupil cost in the state for the 2015-16 school year, that cost has grown steadily, from $17,218 in the 2011-12 school year to $30,525 in the 2015-16 school year, state DPI records show.
Economies of scale
Much of the disparities in school districts' per-pupil cost of education can be attributed to the size of the school, Gerhardt said.
"There is a big difference in terms of economies of scale, between a big school versus a small school, although there are exceptions," he said.
"You've got to pay for a superintendent and a secretary, and cover all the subjects, so your cost per student is higher."
The superintendent in Grand Forks oversees a district with about 7,500 students, but another superintendent might be responsible for district with 500 students.
The same principle applies to the need for-and cost of-a business manager, secretarial staff, and principals, Gerhardt said. "As a general rule, the size makes a big difference. It's a lot tougher for a small school district.
In smaller districts, the addition or loss "of two or three teachers can really skew the numbers," he said.
Likewise, changes in student enrollment can also result in some fluctuations in the per-student cost of education.
"If you have 100 students to begin with, and (you add or subtract) five kids, that's a 5 percent change," he said. "Whereas when you have 7,500 students, you can have a 100 students coming or going and it's less of an adjustment."
"The tough part is when enrollment is declining. ... You can't lay off a teacher and you still need a superintendent," Gerhardt said. "Your expenses are almost kind of fixed so, depending on the number of students you have, there can be drastic swings."
Then, there are situations that are completely out of the norm.
As an example, he pointed to the impact of the oil boom on the Williston school district in northwest North Dakota where there was such a huge influx of students that the per-pupil cost went down dramatically, "because they couldn't hire teachers fast enough," he said.
"But then they finally had to adjust their salary schedules to attract enough teachers, and that number went up as quickly as it went down. ... In the end, it almost becomes a meaningless number because it gyrates so much."
In Minnesota, data reflect general fund expenditures per student for preschool through grade 12.
In East Grand Forks, the average per-pupil cost of education has increased, but not dramatically, from $9,023 in fiscal year 2012 to $9,483 in fiscal year 2016.
In that same time frame, the cost of educating a student at Crookston Public Schools rose from $10,207 in fiscal year 2012 to $11,284 in fiscal year 2016.
The Thief River Falls School District's data show a jump from $9,193 in fiscal year 2012 to $10,434 in fiscal year 2015 and then drop to $10,230 in fiscal year 2016.
Average per-student cost of education for 2015-16 school year
Devils Lake $10,906
Grand Forks $11,917
Park River $9,441
Source: North Dakota Department of Public Instruction
Average per-student cost of education for 2016 fiscal year (Minnesota)
East Grand Forks $9,483
Thief River Falls $10,230
Source: Minnesota Department of Education