Smaller public school districts in North Dakota are offering higher teacher salaries than larger ones in the state, according to data from the state's Department of Instruction.

In terms of average salary, Tioga and Dickinson ranked at the top, paying teachers $61,091 and $62,329, respectively, in the 2017-18 school year, according to DPI data.

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That compares to the statewide average of $53,060 in the 2017-18 school year.

Grand Forks teachers, who were paid an average of $55,283 a year, earned more than the statewide average, but less than they would in Fargo and Bismarck, which paid teachers an average salary of $60,782 and $60,286, respectively.

"Because there is a teacher shortage, (smaller districts) have really done a lot to boost their first-year teacher salaries, benefits and things like that," said Jane Rupprecht, field consultant for North Dakota United, a union representing teachers throughout the state. "They want to attract teachers. There's not very many of them out there, so they really try hard."

Rupprecht said she's heard from several teachers leaving larger school districts for smaller ones where they can get paid more.

In terms of first-year teacher pay, Grand Forks ranked 31st in the 2017-18 school year, according to data compiled by N.D. United. In that school year, the district paid first-year teachers $40,000 a year.

Grand Forks slipped to 39th in the 2018-19 year, according to N.D. United figures.

Tioga again was the top school for first-year teachers in recent years. In the 2017-18 school year, first-year teachers earned a salary of $51,688, and in the current school year, they're being paid $52,851.

Rupprecht said first-year teacher salaries are often a better indicator of what educators actually make than averages. In a district with several longtime educators, for instance, the average salary would be skewed higher since teachers earn more money with more experience.

"Everyone wants a simple number," she said, noting that years of experience have a "huge impact" on how much people get paid.

In her view, average salaries are better measures of longevity and experience in school districts.

In the current school year, a first-year teacher in Grand Forks would earn $41,200 a year, while the highest paid teacher received an annual salary of $77,504. That's roughly on par with Fargo, where first-year teachers earn a salary of $41,532, according to the district's salary schedule.

However, a teacher in Fargo could earn up to $82,934, depending on years of experience and education.

Potential funding boost

In Grand Forks, representatives from the Grand Forks Education Association have begun meeting with school board members to begin laying out terms for a new contract.

The board and union reps disagreed over teacher pay in 2017, with the union asking for a pay hike and the board requesting a pay freeze.

With potential changes in state funding, negotiations may look a bit different this year. Senate Bill 2265 proposes boosting funding for K-12 education by 2% over the next year.

Aimee Copas, executive director of the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders, said the largest challenge will be "understanding the realities behind the potential increases in funding for schools."

"While currently the legislators are suggesting a 2% increase in funding, it is important to note that the pending increase will likely not be completely available to be utilized toward raises or increases in benefits," Copas said via email. "When increases do come, those dollars must be utilized to fund all necessary increases-of course including teachers, but the likelihood that those dollars could all go toward salaries of any sector of employees would likely not be possible or responsible."

As of Friday morning, the proposal remains in conference committee.

"All districts are anxiously awaiting the final version of the bill," Copas said.

Tom Young, GFEA's chief negotiator, is hopeful the proposal will make its way to teachers' paychecks.

"The money that's intended for teaching and learning ought to stay as close to the child as possible," Young said. "Teachers' salaries are a giant part of that."