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Board crunches numbers

Discussing the topic for the first time in more than a decade, the West Fargo School Board considered, then tabled, ideas to raise members' salaries by more than 300 percent on Monday night at the Leidal Education Center.

Currently receiving $1,000 per year for their services, the Board discussed the idea of raising salaries for School Board members to $3,000 per year or more, hopefully making membership more attractive to a general public which showed no interest in this year's Cass County Primary Election, as each of the four members up for re-election ran unopposed.

Superintendent Chuck Cheney, in his last meeting before retiring this Thursday, suggested that the Board hike the salary level to $3,600 per year, still well below the pay amount received by members of other Boards, such as the West Fargo City Commission and the Fargo School Board.

"I think if you look at the amount of work this Board is doing, and has done, that's not an unreasonable amount," Cheney said in his recommendation. "Really, that number is based on a citizen perspective. I think it's a number that the public itself would more easily accept, and in comparison, it's still under the salaries received by other Boards."

Duane Hanson, president of the West Fargo School Board, said the discussion should lead to a "number that we can all live with." He said that the issue should also be decided by a consensus, but his vice president, Angela Korsmo, did not follow suit.

"I see this as very important volunteer work," she said. "I guess there's something in me that says we shouldn't accept more than what we're already getting. Part of me came into this expecting no salary at all. People do volunteer work all the time and don't expect to be compensated for it. It's a commitment, civic duty."

Tom Gentzkow, the Board member who introduced the topic for discussion informally after a meeting last spring, said that he feels the timing is right to raise the salary not just for this current Board, but for future Boards as well.

"Sooner or later, this Board is going to start to turn over," he said. "I felt that the seven of us had been together long enough that we could discuss this and be comfortable doing it. Because we know each other so well, we could look at this issue honestly and openly and say that there should be change. And we have a Board that benefits from seven highly motivated people right now."

Recently, the West Fargo City Commission voted itself a raise of more than 20 percent, hiking salaries from $5,600 to $7,000 annually.

"We've seen a number of requests from other Districts as well, asking what we pay our Board members, as they discuss a possible raise," Mark Lemer, business manager for the District, said. "So, we're not out of step to be discussing this issue at this time. I think as administrators, we realize we work you pretty hard. And if you look at the folks over at the City or in Fargo, they're not working that many times (seven) harder than the members of a School Board."

Lemer said that pay rates for School Boards were frozen for years, with the State mandating a salary of just $25 per meeting, or $650 per year. That mentality, however, has changed.

"Plus, the School Board position is the only one where further education is mandated," Lemer said, referring to a seminar and class each new School Board member takes at the state convention.

With two members of the Board absent on Monday, Susan Bailey and Nancy Kruse, Hanson elected to table the issue to wait for a consensus vote. However, it didn't look like Korsmo was ready to move from her stance that the salary should stand pat.

"I'd like to keep it what it is, but I'm just one of seven. And I know that I'm probably in the minority on this one," she said.

The Board will take action on the issue at one of its July meetings, Hanson said.

In other news, the Board discussed the 2006-2007 preliminary budget numbers, which will see the District maintain a mill levy of 254.02 mills, after earlier discussion last February that indicated the District may roll back the budget by about six mills, saving taxpayers a bit of money in property taxes.

However, Lemer indicated the level will hold at its current level, which means no additional property taxes on behalf of the school, in order to pay off principal payments on special assessments handed down on properties in Osgood and Eagle Run.

Doing so also will bring about a 7 percent increase in the overall budget, raising the expenditure level from around $41 million last year (2005-2006) to more than $44.4 million in 2006-2007.

Most of that additional money will go to staffing, as the District has hired 13 additional teachers for the next school year, a new assistant principal at the high school (who will take Greg Grooters' spot when he heads to the Ninth Grade Center) and additional classified staff. This year's budget also calls for two new school buses to be brought on board for the hefty price of about a quarter of a million dollars.

But the District's fund balance, which is already $3 million in the black, should grow by more than a million dollars thanks to increasing property values and the continuing growth in West Fargo. Lemer said he thinks West Fargo will rake in more than $45.5 million in revenue, and that number could be "conservative" according to preliminary reports from the county.

Still, that's good news, as the District will need all it can spare when it opens two new schools in 2007-2008.

Cheney reported that new Superintendent Dr. Dana Diesel Wallace will arrive in West Fargo later this week. The North Carolina resident will be closing on a house in Horace on Friday, he said, and should start her job on Monday, July 3.

"She's indicated that she'll probably be coming in Monday, and then I'll be working with her as soon as Wednesday, at her request," he said. "She's ready to get started."