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State of schools showcases growing pains and accomplishment

Superintendent Doug Sullivan gave what will be his last State of the Schools presentation to the Dickinson City Commissioners Tuesday. (Iain Woessner / The Dickinson Press)

Superintendent Doug Sullivan spoke of the challenges facing the Dickinson Public School District during his annual state of the schools address before city commissioners on Tuesday evening, the last he will deliver before his retirement.

One of the first slides he presented demonstrated just how much the school district has changed over his years here.

"In October (2017) we had 3,671 students, 647 special education students and 139 English language learners speaking 24 different languages," Sullivan said. "That is an area that is a significant challenge for the school district ... when I arrived at Dickinson Public Schools in 2009 there were zero English language learners. That's been a significant change over the course of the past nine years."

Those changes have brought their fair share of challenges—much of Sullivan's presentation focused on the increase in student populations and the projections for even more dramatic increases in the near future.

"These are the projections we have moving forward in terms of enrollment based on live births in the school district. You can see that in the fall of 2017 ... we had 3,671 students. If the numbers hold, the potential is that could increase dramatically in the next four years," Sullivan said. "What's very important for the community and the commission to understand is that it presents some challenges for the school district. I have informed the school board that in my estimated opinion not only do they have to address the needs of Dickinson High School, they also must address the needs of K-5."

Mayor Scott Decker acknowledged the growing needs, and said that there needs to be a strong community push to get the state Legislature to reform how it funds schools.

""I think the one thing that was brought up was we as a community need to talk to our legislative body and address how they fund you guys," Decker said. "You don't get it all."

Decker said that some had described these challenges as good problems to have.

"One person told me this was a good problem to have—growth—but in the end we have to look at what it's going to cost us," He said. "I think the thing that amazes me is you have 406 kindergarteners roughly and we're graduating a class of 180 ... if you think about that, that first- grade class next year is double what it is this year."

Commissioner Klayton Oltmanns thanked Sullivan for his years of service.

"On a side note, congratulations on your retirement and thank you for all the years of service you've given to this community," Oltmanns said.

Sullivan credited his staff for not only meeting the growth challenges but also maintaining a standard of excellence during his tenure.

"I've been blessed to work with very dedicated, strong employees in the district ... in nine years we've built two schools, we've added on to two other schools and, I'm going to brag a little bit that on the 2017 ND state assessment on an aggregated districtwide basis, Dickinson Public Schools had the fourth-highest scores among class A scores in math and the fifth-highest scores in language arts," Sullivan said. "So with all of the challenges we're facing, we're still providing a quality education, and it is due to the dedication and the commitment of the people who stand in front of our students and work for them every day."

In looking forward, Sullivan said that the school board has afforded itself some flexibility and some alternatives in addressing student growth. Heart River Elementary is being considered for some expansion and renovation, and Sullivan revealed that in January the school district had acquired ownership 114 acres of land near the new Dickinson Middle School.

Commissioner Sarah Trustem asked Sullivan about another challenge currently growing in the district—one of a staff shortage.

"Dr. Sullivan, where is the district at with hiring?" Trustem asked. "I know the numbers are scary looking into next year. How is that going?"

"We are making progress," Sullivan said. "But it is much more challenging to hire teachers today than it was 33 years ago when I first became a superintendent."

Administrators are going as far as Michigan to try to recruit teachers, and Sullivan said the district is still short K-5 teachers and special education teachers.

"We still have hills to climb," he said.

The mayor said that these issues will remain in the forefront as Dickinson continues to enjoy growth and prosperity, and funding will need to be addressed.

"As we become more attractive as a city ... I can think we're just going to get more and more people who will want to relocate and call Dickinson home, which is great," Decker said. "But we do need to take these numbers and keep on the people who will give us the funding."

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