John Dorso: North Dakota Is Spending Too Much On Education



As I watched the debate in the North Dakota House today on HB 1218 I didn’t know if I wanted to cry or I was truly disgusted.

I have witnessed the North Dakota legislature become the whipping post for the education establishment for thirty years. Whether it is K-12 funding or the higher ed folks their insatiable appetite for taxpayer dollars is almost appalling. The legislature continues to let the education establishment drain the tax payer’s coffers for an obscene amount of the wealth. All of that in the name of the children.

Back in the nineties we kept shoveling money into K-12 trying to find some fairness in the distribution formula. Representatives C. Rydell and later R. Kelsh as Chairman of the House Education Committee looked for a compromise that would keep the state from coming under a State Supreme Court mandated order to find equity in funding between the school districts.

From the inside you could see it coming down every session. The NDEA and North Dakota School Boards Assoc. knew that we thought we had to move toward a solution as the Court had already written an opinion saying if the legislature didn’t make strides toward equity they would step in. Re writing the formula became a game of increments. The so called poorer school districts would cry foul if we took any money from them while they knew full well that for anything to pass we were going to have to hold every legislator’s districts harmless. There wasn’t a bill dealing with foundation aid for schools that legislators didn’t run to The Department of Public Instruction to see how their districts faired. If we couldn’t get rural legislators on board there wasn’t going to be change. Every session it cost tens of millions trying to get to equity. The tragic part was that the so called poor districts weren’t that poor they just didn’t want to raise property taxes on their patrons. I won’t bore you with the details of the formula but the mill levy deduct as it was called was the sticking point. We should have let the courts rewrite the formula. If the NDEA or NDSBA were unhappy with the result so be it.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]…they have gotten themselves in a pickle over property tax buy downs driven by the K-12 establishment.[/mks_pullquote]

In Chapters 14 and 15 of my book When Governance Worked I describe some of the reasons for my frustration with educational funding in North Dakota. A reading of those chapters will give you a deeper understanding of the pressure legislators feel when the educators march out the children.

If you haven’t or don’t want to read the book this is the short version. The K-12 establishment (NDSBA and the NDEA) come before the legislature bemoaning the lack of funds to provide a quality education. Let us now begin to feel guilty because we are depriving the children. Let us now add the component of if you don’t give us more money we will have no choice but to raise property taxes. Rural legislators run for the states check book as their biggest fear is their constituents will be up in arms if the cost of production ag goes up because of an increase in taxes. By the way during that time the school property taxes averaged between 60 and 70% of taxes levied. Decades later after shoveling billions from the state into the system that percentage still is fairly accurate.

After the turn of the century Gov. John Hoeven comes along and devises a new plan to shovel more millions into the insatiable beast. It starts out as a proposal for equity in teacher salaries. In reality it was just another way to try and keep property taxes down. That has now turned under this governor and legislature into the biggest of all boondoggles. Although a miniscule group of property owners get some relief the facts are that most didn’t see a reduction and some saw an increase in their taxes. Keep in mind that school districts average over 60% of that tax bill.

I don’t see an end to the charade. The state income tax cut that has passed is so miniscule it is at best a sop. I know the legislators will say it was the best they could do with declining oil revenue but the reality is they have gotten themselves in a pickle over property tax buy downs driven by the K-12 establishment. Legislators believe it is easier to give the money to education in the name of the children and property tax payers then give it back to the hard working men and women of North Dakota. At some point even if they don’t do the right thing for the income tax payer they are going to run out of money for this insane road they have chosen.

One of the things said today during the debate is the old saw about how hard school board members work. In all of my years the only two reasons anyone ran for a school board were these. One they were concerned about the education of the children and after the administrators were done with them the only solution was more money. The other was school property taxes were too high and something had to be done. When the administrators got done with them on that the only solution was more money from the state because they couldn’t cut budgets.

As I said years ago. If we should have had the guts to cut and run from school funding. It is in the end a local issue and only the patrons of school districts can rein in their school boards.
The bill sponsor had it right today. When the state has become 80% of your schools funding at some point the state is going to be calling the tune. If you can’t see how Common Core fits into that scenario you probably still believe in the tooth fairy.