Helmut Schmidt, Published January 29 2011
Some Fargo-Moorhead students learn at higher price than others
It cost $7,641.09 on average to teach a West Fargo student. That was nearly $2,000 less than the cost to teach a child in Fargo, which was $9,625.32 in 2008-09, the most recent year figures are available from the state Department of Public Instruction. The state average was $8,516.89.
Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton is the metro’s bargain spot east of the Red River, with the average cost to teach a student at $8,596, the Minnesota Department of Education reports.
Moorhead’s cost to educate a student for 2008-09, listed at $11,648 in education department records, appears initially to be close to the Minnesota average of $11,596.
But that was inflated by a one-time $10 million bonding expense for retirement and other benefits that year, Assistant Superintendent Wayne Kazmierczak said.
Minus that expense, Moorhead’s per-student cost drops to $9,685, nearly $2,000 below the state average, Kazmierczak said.
“We’re far below the state average in our spending for comparable districts and the average school district in Minnesota,” he said.
West Fargo’s low cost per student compared to the state average is partly the result of economies of scale in running the business end of one of the largest school districts in the state, said West Fargo Business Manager Mark Lemer.
Keeping a tight rein on costs is also part of the district’s culture, he said.
“That’s always been kind of our motto (minimizing costs). We’ve always been at a disadvantage in our access to revenue. That has forced us to be frugal wherever we can be,” Lemer said.
A large part of the gap in per-student costs between West Fargo and the Fargo School District is tied to Fargo’s mill levy, which at one time was not limited. Fargo could hire more teachers and staff and pay them more, Lemer said.
West Fargo’s growth does present a challenge.
The district opened the current school year with 7,178 students in preschool through grade 12. By 2015-16, it could have 9,206 students, studies show.
“For us, the big hurdle is going to be space for our educational programs,” Lemer said. “And figuring out a way to accommodate additional facilities, additional staffing.”
Fargo Superintendent Rick Buresh said a couple of factors push Fargo’s costs above the state average.
The teacher salary schedule is short, so teachers advance up the pay scale quicker. F-M also has three colleges, so teachers can earn advanced degrees and earn more. Class sizes are smaller, which also pushes up the per-student cost, he said.
“We think we get a lot of excellent teachers,” Buresh said. “They serve our students and our community extremely well.”
The cost to run Trollwood Performing Arts School is also in the district’s budget, Buresh said.
Some variation in costs per student may also be due to how the expenses are accounted for by each district, Buresh said.
He said the cost to run Davies High School when it opens this fall will be modest. Employee costs make up most of the budget, and most of the teachers needed to operate Davies are now on staff, Buresh said.
Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton is cautious with its spending, Superintendent Randy Bruer said.
“We look at every area to be sure we’re being cost-efficient for what the public wants to see with programs,” he said.
While special education costs were a relatively low $1,008 in 2008-09, Bruer said they’ve gone up.
Another cost driver will be rising energy costs, he said. Those costs may increase transportation and food costs, he said.
Kazmierczak said some of Moorhead’s costs, particularly in special education, are tied to F-M being a regional medical center.
“There are all sorts of options in Fargo-Moorhead for kids with high needs,” he said. “We don’t view that as a negative at all. We’re glad to be able to provide what kids need.”
A big concern is one shared by all Minnesota schools: What will the Legislature do to trim the state’s $6.2 billion deficit?
“Cuts in education are possible. We’re going to be watching this legislative session very closely,” Kazmierczak said. “There may be very much a negative impact.”
That makes last November’s approval of the district’s operating levy even more important, he said.
“At least we have a couple of years here that we can at least catch our breath,” Kazmierczak said.
Average cost per student for Minnesota schools in the 2008-09 school year
|East Grand Forks||1,729||$9,182|
The Minnesota average cost per student is the sum of pre-K through grade 12 general fund expenditures, food service and community services costs. It does not include building construction or debt service.
*Moorhead had to bond $10 million to pay retirement debts. The number in parenthesis is the adjusted figure.
Information from the Minnesota Department of Education
Average cost per student for North Dakota schools in the 2008-09 school year
|Highest in N.D.|
Information from the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction
Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583