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'This is a really good place to effect change': North Dakota senator makes education a priority

Nicole Poolman

BISMARCK — Sen. Nicole Poolman, R-Bismarck, is the only state legislator currently employed as a public school teacher.

An English teacher at Century High School, Poolman said she believes she brings an important perspective to the Legislature.

"I think it's essential that we have a current teacher in the Legislature to be able to relay those needs and issues (of schools)," said Poolman, who's been a state senator since 2012.

For each of the past four legislative sessions, Poolman has taken an unpaid leave of absence from her teaching job. She finds a long-term substitute teacher to take over, and, at the end of the session, she returns to the classroom for about the last month of school.

"It's been good for my students to see that we all need to step up when we can in whatever ways that we can," Poolman said.

Recently, an influx of teachers across the United States ran for state legislative seats. According to an Education Week article, more than 150 classroom teachers ran last year.

But, in some states, teachers cannot simultaneously be state legislators.

Unlike North Dakota, there are several states who do not allow a person to hold public employment in addition to an elected office. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, last year, about a dozen states didn't allow dual employment.

In some of these states, it's viewed as a conflict of interest to be a teacher and in the legislature, which may set teacher salaries. Poolman said she doesn't think advocating for education is a conflict of interest, but concedes that it would be an issue if she were to introduce a bill that would increase pay for teachers, for example.

"If it were ever the case where I felt it was (a conflict), I would stand up and declare my conflict," she said, which lawmakers in North Dakota often do.

Running for office

After teaching in Grand Forks, Poolman moved to Bismarck in 2000 when her husband was elected state insurance commissioner.

Poolman then taught at Mandan High School for four years, and, in 2005, started teaching at Century.

Poolman ran successfully for a state Senate seat in 2012, representing the then newly formed District 7. She said she decided to run because of the open district, as well as what she saw as a "lack of civility" in politics.

Poolman recalled how, at that time, Olympia Snowe, of Maine, retired from Congress, citing the increasingly partisan divide in politics.

"One of the main reasons I started to run was because I knew I would be the type of person who would look for common ground," Poolman said.

"I love serving in the Senate," she said. "This is a really good place to effect change."

Leaving the classroom

Poolman co-teaches at Century High School with social studies teacher Perry Lee.

The pair teach a course called "American pageant," which combines English and history into a two-hour class. Lee said he's been teaching the course with Poolman since the fall of 2014.

"It's worked really well. Better than you would think," Lee said.

Lee said, even during the off-years when Poolman is not at the state Capitol, she still has to attend interim committee meetings.

"It never ends," he said. "She just keeps going."

Lee said he works well with Poolman, who is careful to not insert politics into teaching.

"She never brings them together," he said. "I don't know how she does it — she avoids ever giving her political philosophy."

Lee said he has also found that many students at Century look up to Poolman, including some girls at the school. In his government class, he teaches a section on civic virtue, and many students will write an essay about Poolman, he said.

Also, it's beneficial to have the perspective of a current educator at the Legislature, Lee said.

"It's a really good advantage to have," he said.

Education advocate

Poolman said she's passionate about K-12 education and has brought some bills forward this session pertaining to education.

One bill she introduced would update the state law against bullying to include cyberbullying off school grounds. Poolman said she drafted the bill — Senate Bill 2181 — after hearing concerns from parents in her district. The bill passed in the Senate and has been forwarded to the House.

Poolman has also introduced Senate Bill 2182 with hopes that it will churn out more teachers in the state. The bill, which passed in the Senate, would allow high school students to obtain a career and technical education scholarship if they completed an introductory teaching course.

This school year, Bismarck Public Schools became the first in the state to offer an introduction to teaching course to high school students. Poolman teaches the first year of the course.

With SB 2182, Poolman said she hopes to create a pathway to the teaching profession.

"It's kind of crazy to me that we have all the career pathways in business and agriculture, but we've never put one together for teaching," she said.

Poolman supports other education legislation, including an increase in per-pupil payments to school districts. The per-pupil payment has remained stagnant over the past three years.

Poolman, who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said she's advocating for a 2 percent and 3 percent increase in per-pupil funding for each year of the biennium.

She said she also supports a "hybrid" approach to a proposal to switch to on-time funding for school districts. Currently, school districts receive money from the state based on the previous year's enrollment numbers, but Gov. Doug Burgum proposed to change that to current — or on-time — enrollment numbers.

Poolman said the hybrid would instead allow districts to decide whether they would want on-time funding or not, as some smaller school districts with declining enrollment could be adversely affected.