The Grand Forks Public School District expects to scale back its summer driver's ed course offerings due to a declining number of qualified instructors.
The district usually serves upwards of 300 driver's ed students in the summer, but that will likely drop to around 200 this year, according to Terry Bohan, principal of Community High School and director of the district's driver's ed program.
"Our driver's ed instructor pool is becoming an issue," Bohan told School Board members at a March 25 meeting. "Ten years ago, we had 22 driver's ed instructors. This year, we had 14. ... We are slowly but surely losing staff."
The district typically offers two sessions of driver's ed: one in the earlier part of June, and the other in the later part of the month. Each session typically includes three time slots each. But this year, Bohan proposed offering only two.
Bohan said the district could "examine how to provide a third session at a later date" to serve additional students. He also suggested looking into ways to recruit more driver's ed instructors, though he admitted that may not be an easy task.
"The licensure for driver's ed instructors is quite unique," Bohan said.
Minot State University is the only college in North Dakota to offer driver's ed teaching courses certified by the state's Department of Instruction, according to Bohan.
To obtain certification, a person must already have a teacher's license. Minot State's certification can be completed in 10 undergraduate credits, according to Bradley Webster, who works in driver traffic safety instruction at the college. Teachers can complete the entire certification online.
The cost is typically $280 per credit, meaning the entire certification course can cost nearly $3,000.
Teachers need to pony up the cash themselves; neither the state nor Grand Forks Public Schools offer reimbursement for the program, according to Bohan.
The district was hoping to get some support from the North Dakota Legislature to help recruit driver's ed instructors, but that fell through last month.
Senate Bill 2156 would have imposed a new 25-cent fee on motor vehicle registrations and subsequent renewals. The proceeds would have been put in a fund to help retain and recruit driver's ed teachers at public and private schools in the state, according to the text of the bill. The bill passed in the Senate but failed overwhelmingly in the House in late March.
The recruitment puzzle
What's more, obtaining the certification won't increase a teacher's base salary, which can prove difficult for recruitment purposes.
"One of the main barriers is the fact that these are undergraduate credits," Bohan said. "Undergraduate credit is not something that causes a person to advance along their contracted salary schedule. So that's a barrier we have to try to tackle."
Still, Dan Carlson, a longtime driving instructor in the district, said obtaining that certification has been worth it over time.
"I've taught for many years, and it definitely paid itself off within a couple summers," said Carlson, who has taught driver's ed for 19 years. "For sure, it's worth it."
Carlson said he enjoys teaching kids to drive because they're typically very motivated to get their license. In North Dakota, students can begin driver's ed as early as 14.
The Grand Forks Public Schools driver education course includes classroom instruction, simulated driving practice and behind-the-wheel training. The course takes about two weeks to complete, and families need to pay a $150 fee to register.
But to be sure, parents do have other driver's ed options outside of the school district. On its website, the North Dakota Department of Transportation lists two private driver's instruction courses in Grand Forks: Forks Drive-Right and The Right Way LLC. The department lists six other private offerings in Fargo.
For residents age 16 or older, driver's ed isn't required to obtain a driver's license in North Dakota. But Bohan emphasized the importance of educating young people on proper driving techniques.
"Driving is a very risky experience for many students," Bohan told the Herald. "Certainly one of the most dangerous (experiences) any young person can do is drive. ... It takes a long time to learn how to drive a car."