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N.D. May Seek To Entice Interdistrict Cooperation

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Faced with continuing strong opposition to any proposal that even hints of school consolidation, some North Dakota legislators are hoping to sweeten the controversial prospect of instructional cooperation between rural and urban school districts by offering state financial incentives.

The state's Legislative Council is scheduled to decide next week whether to recommend to the legislature a bill encouraging rural districts to buy instructional services or classroom space from the state's larger, urban districts.

The $1.6-million, two-year plan, part of a bill proposed by the Legislative Council's interim Education Finance Committee, would provide state money to pay the estimated $165-per-student fee that urban districts would charge rural systems, said Senator Dan Wogsland, the education panel's chairman.

The goal, Mr. Wogsland said, is to give rural students access to advanced mathematics or foreign-language courses that their districts would otherwise be unable to provide.

"Especially in the advanced classes, it's pretty tough to get good teachers," he noted. "I think [the plan is] a step toward educational-opportunity equality."

Existing tax revenues and funds from higher oil prices would be sufficient to pay for the new plan, Mr. Wogsland argued, so new or higher taxes would not be needed.

The program could benefit both rural and urban districts, according to Mr. Wogsland. He noted that there could be cases in which an urban district would pay a rural one for a course, for example in Russian.

In addition, he said, an urban district might have a small class in a particular subject that, with the addition of some rural students, it would be better able to afford.

To achieve cross-district instruction, rural students might be bused to an urban district, a teacher might travel to the rural district, or classes could be linked through computers or interactive television, Mr. Wogsland said.

The lawmaker said he was optimistic about the proposal's chances because it had strong bipartisan and urban-rural support in committee.

The state's 117,000 public-school students are spread out in 280 districts around the state. But 15 of those districts--including Fargo, Bismarck, and Grand Forks--enroll roughly 60 percent of all students, according to Ronald Torgeson, director of information and research for the state education department.

The plan as proposed by the legislative committee was shaped by animosity to district consolidation, which remains a major fact of life in North Dakota politics.

A 1989 "restructuring" law offered incentives to districts that entered transitional cooperatives as a step toward consolidation, said Joe Linnertz, director of administration for the state department.

But some districts do not even want to exercise that option, he pointed out.

Many smaller communities fear losing their identity by merging their school district with others, Mr. Wogsland said, and urban districts shudder at the prospect of an influx of new students for whom they might have to build new schools.

"We have the ability to [share instruction] now, but it's not being done," said Mr. Wogsland.

Indeed, consolidation is so sensitive an issue that the new proposal was amended in committee to avoid the appearance of laying the groundwork for district mergers.

The plan now presents an alternative to restructuring or consolidation, Mr. Linnertz suggested.

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