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082517-nws-first-day-1

Highland Acres second-grade teacher Tana Banker stands with students as they recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the raising of the American flag in front of the school to begin the first day of classes in Bismarck in 2017.

To keep up with growth in student enrollments in the school district, the Bismarck School Board has agreed to fund 20 additional teaching positions, which is estimated to cost $1.4 million.

School board members agreed Thursday to hire the additional teachers after a presentation from administration on the need and possible funding options. The board voted unanimously to allow the hiring of the new positions and agreed to identify how to fund them at a later date.

"We know it's a time when the district ending fund balance is low, we're not expecting a huge uplift from the Legislature and so we really went to what is critical, and it's highly skilled teachers in front of students," Bismarck Public Schools Superintendent Tamara Uselman told board members.

The district needs 20 full-time equivalent teaching positions to maintain current class sizes and to offer additional special education teachers and mental health services.

Cindy Wilcox, the district's special education director, told the board that 3.8 FTEs are needed to account for a large number of special education students going into the secondary schools next year. Also, two FTEs in related services, which are services for students with special needs, were requested. This includes speech pathology, occupational therapy and school psychologists.

"Our ratios for what a school (psychologist) should be serving are really getting to be large. So, the recommended ratio is really a school psychologist per every 500 to 700 kids, and in our district, that would mean we really should have 18 when we're at full capacity, and we're at nine," Wilcox said.

The number of students with special needs in BPS has grown in recent years. In the 2013-14 school year, there were 1,322 students with special needs, which increased to 1,576 this year.

The elementary schools need 10 additional teachers to account for large class sizes. Under district policy, the ideal size of classes in grades K-3 is 18 to 20 students, and in grades 4-5, it is 25. There are 10 classes over capacity at the elementary schools, according to data presented to the board.

The middle schools and high schools also need four FTEs for core and elective classes, including science, English and social studies. These teachers would be placed at Bismarck and Legacy high schools, as well as Wachter and Horizon middle schools.

"This would just be to maintain, not to decrease our class sizes, but to maintain what we have been doing with those class targets," said Ben Johnson, assistant superintendent for secondary schools. The district's goal class sizes at the secondary schools are 25 to 28 students per class.

The board was presented with some funding options, including adjusting the district's ending fund balance, a general fund tax increase and a reallocation of existing staff and program changes.

Some board members said they were supportive of keeping all funding options open. Board member Jon Lee said he would like to move forward with the hiring of the additional teachers, and, in the future, wants to discuss hiring even more at the secondary schools.

"It's a big problem, and it's a now problem, so we have our work cut out for us," Lee said. "We're just going to have to make cuts, and we may have to raise the mill (levy), I don't know yet, but I think all of us are in agreement that we need to look at the cuts first and see where we're at."

Darin Scherr, business and operations manager for the district, told the board that a final budget needs to be submitted to the county on Aug. 10. The board will have until then to identify how it will fund the additional 20 teachers.

"I just want to be clear: We don't know yet how we're going to fund this, we just know that we have to," Lee said. "I really do think we've got to do this, and I have every confidence we'll find a way."

Earlier this week, Lembke said the need for additional teachers is real, yet decisions on how to fund the additional positions will be "challenging."

"Over the past month, the board has also been communicated to by the community, not only parents, but also teachers, about large class sizes and some of those other factors that have indicated the need for additional teachers," he said. "The amount of teachers that we've increased isn't quite commensurate with the amount of students we've received."

(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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Education and Health Reporter