A bill that would allow school districts across the state to offer certain newly recruited teachers signing bonuses unanimously passed both the state senate and house on voice roll-call votes.
HB 1187, introduced by several state representatives including Scott Louser (R-Dist. 5) and Lori VanWinkle (R-Dist. 3) — both of Minot — would amend the North Dakota Century Code to give school boards authority to offer newly signed teachers bonuses.
Although no local state lawmakers sponsored the bill, HB 1187 states, "The board of a school district may offer a signing bonus to an individual."
If successful, the bill would give Williston Basin School District 7's board the ability to recruit teachers with the enticement of signing bonuses.
HB 1187 reads: "The board of a school district may offer a signing bonus to an individual who: a. Is licensed by the education standards and practices board or approved by the education standards and practices board; b. Has signed a contract of employment in the district; and c. Has never been employed in the newly-assigned role by the board of a school district."
The bill specifies that bonuses may be paid in one lump sum or over a period of five years from the contract signing date.
In supporting testimony, Dr. Aimee Copas of the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders, said HB 1187 is necessary in order to place public schools on equal footing with private industry when it comes to attracting talent through incentives such as signing bonuses.
"Schools have limited ability to do some of those same things, thereby making them an employer that finds themselves in a corner when it comes to competing with private industry for workers," Copas said after pointing out that public education is the largest employer in the state when considered as a singular entity.
Alexis Baxley, executive director of the North Dakota School Boards Association, also provided testimony in support of HB 1187.
"We are facing a significant workforce shortage in North Dakota," Baxley said. "Education has not been immune to that shortage; my districts are looking for bus drivers, teachers, custodians, counselors and more on a near constant basis. In addition to the challenges presented by such a shortage, public school districts also have to work within a significant number of restrictions when it comes to employing teachers."
Baxley said those restrictions make it difficult to compete with private industry in "attracting and retaining talent."
HB 1187, which was returned to the House after passing the Senate 46-0 on a second roll-call vote, stipulates that any signing bonus is in addition to a teacher's negotiated contract and may not be included in the district's negotiated salary schedule for continuing contract purposes.
The bill also states that signing bonuses "may not be paid until the individual is licensed and qualified for the newly-assigned role by the education standards and practices board."
To prevent a district in the state from targeting new recruits in a neighboring district after they've received signing bonuses, the bill was amended to discourage individuals employed the prior year by another ND school district from switching districts.
As Copas put it in her recommendation favoring HB 1187: "To prevent poaching from neighboring school districts, that employee must have been in that district for two years before being deemed eligible for that bonus."
The problems of recruiting and retaining teachers in school districts throughout North Dakota are not limited to large districts such as WBSD7. It is an issue with smaller ND school districts, as well.
Michael Heilman, executive director of North Dakota Small Organized Schools, said the difficulty of recruiting qualified teachers cuts across all schools — large and small.
However, he pointed out smaller schools face a disadvantage. Teachers are often attracted to larger schools where there are more opportunities for professional growth and because they typically exist in larger metropolitan areas.
"The teacher shortage is real in large and small schools, and the pool of qualified teachers continues to shrink," Heilman said. "Teachers moving from smaller schools to larger schools is not new.
"What is new," the NDSOS executive director continued, "is larger schools finding it difficult to fill positions."
The problem is so pervasive, Heilman said, some small schools have no candidates applying for open teaching positions.
"Providing school districts with the ability to incentivize teachers through bonuses to join or move to a shortage area will help recruit and retain teachers in our classrooms," he said in support of the state senate version of HB 1187.
That version was endorsed by the senate leader and could be enacted if Gov. Doug Burgum signs it into law.