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Rural schools share common issues: Districts have individual needs

GRAND FORKS — As in many rural school districts, the costs of getting Manvel students to and from school competes with the cost of educating them as a major piece of the district’s budget.

The district spends $5.80 on instruction for each dollar it spends on transportation, or 35 percent less than the $8.89 average for rural North Dakota districts.

But Manvel Superintendent Richard Ray said the numbers don’t tell the full story. His transportation costs are driven even higher by special needs like busing high school students the 13 miles to Grand Forks and transporting migrant students to summer school there.

“It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison,” he said of the statewide average.

Although rural districts face varying challenges — including high transportation costs, low levels of federal funding and limited staffing — they all aim to stretch their budgets and cover the basic needs to provide the best education possible, educators said.

In the biennial report by the Rural School and Community Trust, a national nonprofit group dedicated to education advocacy, every state was rated on its rural education system. Using data from 2010-11, each state was ranked on a spectrum of factors — including student diversity, socioeconomic challenges, state spending per student and test results.

Spending habits varied, but North Dakota spent more on students and transportation compared with Minnesota, which tended to set aside more for teachers.

To see how local spending habits matched with state averages, the Grand Forks Herald requested statistics on six rural districts — Warren-Alvarado-Oslo, Fisher and Win-E-Mac school districts in Minnesota, and Larimore, Manvel and Thompson school districts in North Dakota. In some cases, the differences were extreme.

Districts in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, Minn., are classified as urban by the National Center for Education Statistics and not included in the report, said co-author Dan Showalter of Ohio University.

Spending per student

North Dakota spent $6,449 per rural student while Minnesota spent $6,225, according to NCES data that informed the report. That’s more than the national average of $5,826, according to the report.

Contrary to state averages, the three districts in northwest Minnesota generally spent more than North Dakota. The Warren-Alvarado-Oslo (Minn.) School District, which had 436 total students that year, spent the highest amount per pupil at $7,502, while the one in Thompson spent the least — $4,445 on 415 students.

Thompson Superintendent Jason Schwabe said his district has the lowest percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals in the state — 9.6 percent in 2011, according to the report — and that affects what can be spent on teachers and students. Lower numbers of free-and-reduced-lunch students mean less federal funding for the district, which means less money to cover other areas of the budget, he said.

“If you generate more dollars through federal funds, you can spend more per pupil,” he said.

In Thompson, more money is also spent on distance education to help provide a good curriculum when they can’t hire a full-time teacher, a challenge many rural districts face, he said.

Keeping up

Of the six districts, the ones in Minnesota had higher percentages of low-income students than North Dakota, though the percentages of free and reduced or Title I students were the same for both states.

Win-E-Mac School District in Erskine, Minn., had the highest percentage of students eligible for federal Title I school aid, which indicates a higher number of students in greater financial need.

Superintendent Randy Bruer said federal funding can provide other financial help, too. Just by applying for free and reduced-price meals, the district is eligible to potentially receive zero percent interest on constructing a new addition for its school, he said.

The spending gap between the six districts was widest in terms of transporting students to schools.

The state of North Dakota spends an average $8.89 on instruction for every dollar spent on transportation, while Minnesota spends an average $10.65. This means North Dakota has less money for teaching and learning because of its higher transportation costs, according to the study.

Manvel Superintendent Ray said several factors contribute to the inflated figure, including the district’s summer program for migrant children, who are bused in from Oslo, Hillsboro, Minto and seven other small towns. The district, which has pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students, also pays to send its high school students to Grand Forks and has also purchased two new school buses, he said.

With smaller schools, it can be a struggle to balance the budget, administrators said.

In North Dakota, less money is generated through property taxes now and the majority of state funding is based on student enrollment, Schwabe said. When enrollments decline, that creates another challenge for districts.

“If enrollment is going down, you’re getting quite a bit less money year to year to try and keep up,” he said. “That’s the real struggle.”

Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson is the K-12 education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald.  Contact her if you have any story ideas or tips and visit www.grandforksherald.com. 

(701) 787-6736
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