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N.D. Districts Put on Hard Sell for Superintendents

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They might offer a car or a house as part of the deal, but North Dakota school boards are still having trouble attracting superintendents to their small-town districts.

The towns' bucolic settings and low cost of living--not to mention the good academic reputation of North Dakota's schools--apparently are not enough to keep superintendents from seeking work in neighboring states where the pay is better or there are more job opportunities for their spouses.

This year, there are 34 openings out of about 160 superintendent positions in the state, said Tom Feldner, the assistant ex~ecutive director of the North Dakota School Boards Association.

The average starting salary for a superintendent in North Dakota is about $40,000 a year.

In nearby states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, superintendents can earn up to 25 percent more.

The Domino Effect

Mr. Feldner said last month that the superintendent shortage--a problem in North Dakota for the past two years--was likely to worsen.

A few of the state's larger districts probably will attract top administrators from smaller school systems, creating a domino effect, he said. Even the common practice of offering perks such as free housing has not helped, Mr. Feldner added.

The Dickinson school system, with about 3,100 students, is one of those larger districts. This summer, the district lost its superintendent to a school system out of state.

Although the western North Dakota district can afford to be a little choosier because of its size, officials there said they were worried about their prospects. So they have hired an interim superintendent and plan to spend a year searching for a replacement.

"We thought we'd have a better chance of getting good people over that time," said Nancy Johnson, the school board president and the head of the state school boards' association. "We didn't want to rush ourselves in this market."

Ms. Johnson said she had heard stories about other districts in the state getting only four or five applications for a position.

The Garrison school board has been one of the lucky ones. The 450-student district found a new superintendent to start this summer, even though it had seven fewer applicants than during its last search two years ago, which attracted 25.

"I think we've all noticed that there just aren't that many highly qualified candidates out there," said Mike Zimmerman, a board member in Garrison.

"It comes down to money, a lot of it." he said. "It's a tough situation these days."

Filling Many Shoes

On top of offering lower pay than other states in the region, some North Dakota districts also need a superintendent to be jack-of-all-trades.

For instance, Garrison's new superintendent hailed from another district in the state where he was not only the schools chief, but also a teacher, principal, and bus driver.

And other districts, Mr. Zimmerman said, are trying to recruit superintendents to serve more than one district--and more than one board. That can make for extra work and strange politics, he said.

But districts are getting creative in their recruiting and trying to spread the word that a job in the heartland pays off in ways that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

Ms. Johnson said the Dickinson schools were thinking about placing ads in journals or big-city newspapers nationwide, trying to lure people who used to live in the state.

"We'd say something like: 'Get out of the hustle and bustle. Come back to where you can breathe the air,"' she said.

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