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2017 legislative session will be important to WFPS

The 2017 North Dakota Legislative Assembly is now underway, and from all indicators it will be a challenging one financially. We are fortunate to have representation in Bismarck from the West Fargo community and the West Fargo School District who are open and willing to communicate on school and broader community issues. In December, eight of our legislators attended a breakfast meeting with the school board and administrators to hear and discuss issues identified by the school board as priorities for this session.

At the top of the list of issues of importance to WFPS is "on-time funding." It is important to provide support for growing districts as well as shrinking districts, as both exist in North Dakota. Currently, shrinking districts are sheltered from the effects of declining enrollment by being funded for their previous spring's enrollment on a per-student basis. Districts that are growing, like West Fargo does on a yearly basis, suffer from this formula, as it does not fully recognize new students until the next year, even though those growing districts had to add teachers, paraprofessionals, bus routes, textbooks, etc. for these students this year. What we propose is funding based on the previous spring or the current fall enrollment, whichever is greater, which was the mechanism in place prior to 2007.

The current formula does provide some funding for some of the students in districts that grow 4 percent or more, in the form of a Rapid Enrollment Grant. It is only a fraction of the standard funding per student (less than half). We have stressed to legislators that if "on-time-funding" is not achievable, at least we must retain the Rapid Enrollment Grant. To provide some perspective, what follows is four years' worth of data regarding our enrollment and how the two distinctly different funding formulas impact our bottom line:

-- In 2013-14, we grew by 495 students. We received $850,937 from the Rapid Enrollment Grant. If on-time funding had been in place, we would have received an additional $3,867,671.

-- In 2014-15, we grew by 523 students and received $1,032,085 from the Rapid Enrollment Grant. On-time funding would have afforded us an additional $4,112,951.

-- The district grew by 511 students in 2015-16, which provided us with $1,148,160 from the Rapid Enrollment Grant. An additional $4,029,767 would have been given to the district if on-time funding had been in place.

-- This year (2016-17), WFPS added 411 students and received $943,800 from the Rapid Enrollment Grant. If on-time funding had been in place, the district would have received an additional $3,345,795.

The district is projected to continue growing an average of 500 students over at least the next four years. Based on the numbers shared above, it is easy to see how much money the district will continue to lose out on if on-time funding is not enacted.

Next year and the year after, the district will open new elementary schools, as well as a new hockey arena and aquatic center. To operate under the current funding formula, the district has to budget some of its fund balance for operational costs, which is not a sustainable strategy for the long term.

Other priorities shared with our legislators include adequate funding for English Language Learners. (About 7 percent of our students are EL, and additional state and federal funding is not adequate.) We are concerned as well about funding for student health and safety, which covers a range of topics including behavioral health services, suicide prevention, provision of school nurses and school resource officers. We ask as well that there be flexibility and/or additional funding for school districts if the Legislature mandates professional development for staff to address myriad issues such as bullying, opioid abuse, mental health, and suicide prevention. The needs and professional development priorities of school districts vary based on their circumstances, and the districts should be empowered to focus professional development based on a local needs assessment.

Our local representatives in Bismarck have a difficult challenge this session. Even if there is not funding to address priorities we have shared with them, and even if they may disagree with the priorities, we have learned that they appreciate and value open communication with school board members, administrators and teachers. We will continue to provide feedback and information as the session unfolds. We recognize the daunting job our representatives have, and we appreciate them.