History of the Office of the County Superintendent of Schools

by Sharon Young, Nelson Co. Supt. of Schools 

Do you remember participating in the YCL, the Jr. Red Cross, or county Play Days, Declamation Contests, One-Act Play Contests, and Band Contests?  Did you take the Eighth Grade Examination, participate in Eighth Grade Graduation exercises, or ever receive a ND Reading Circle Certificate for reading the required number of books?  Do you recall the excitement or maybe anxiety you felt on the day the County Superintendent of Schools was coming to visit your school?  If so then you have remembrances of activities and events that were sponsored by the office of the County Superintendent of Schools. Some of the activities, duties, and responsibilities of the office have changed since days gone by, yet many remain the same today.

Here’s how the position of County Supt. of Schools began in Nelson County. At the meeting of the County Commissioners on June 9, 1883 Clarence L. Greenough was elected County Superintendent of Schools until the general election.  On July 12, 1883 the county was divided into school townships.  On October 6, 1883 C.L Greenough’s resignation as county superintendent was accepted.  James A. Rose received appointment with a salary of $400 annually to be paid quarterly.  Individuals who have served as county superintendent of schools are Jeff Myers (1885-89), M. L. Williams (1889-1893), C. A. Hall (1893-1901), E. C. Olsgard (1901-1906), B. O. Skrivseth (1906-1911), John Swenson (1910-1912), P. J. Iverson (1912-1919), Jennie Skrivseth (1919-1932), B. J. Burreson (1932-1936), J. R. Norgaard (1936-1949), Lydia Norgaard (1949-1951), Grace Carlson (1951-1992), Beverly J. Schmidt (1993-1994), and Sharon G. Young (1994-present).

Soon after settlers established themselves in Nelson County, schools began to be organized.  The earliest record of schools shows that Mrs. Maggie McManus, a widow who homesteaded in what was afterwards Dahlen Township, was one of the first teachers holding school in Uldrich Moen’s log house.

The first school district to be organized in the county was Kane on April 25, 1883.  Other early school districts organized were Lee, Michigan, Mapes, Rochester in 1883; Dayton, Hoiland, Illinois, Lake, Ora, Petersburg in 1884; Adler, Bergen, Dodds, Field, Hamlin, Norway, Rugh, Wamduska in 1885; Cleveland, Dahlen, Osago, Sarnia in 1886; Center, Enterprise, Forde, Nash in 1887; Melrose in 1888; and Williams in 1889.

Reports and records that are available in the office date back to the late 1800’s. Numerous requests are received from people across the U.S. seeking  genealogical information, school or family reunion information, or proof of date of birth and/or name verification for social security purposes.  Records available include: School Census reports from 1891 to 2005 (ND law requiring this record was repealed in 2007); Teacher’s Final Reports (membership & attendance) from 1885 to present; Annual Reports from County Superintendent (1884 to 1964 when this type of report was discontinued); Record of Teacher Certificates (1900 to 1993 when ND law requiring this record was repealed); School Board Members and Officers (1884 to present); School Election Poll Books (1906 to present); Teacher Lists (1901 to present); Record of Eighth Grade Graduates (1913-1961); Minutes of County School Officers (1906 to present); and all school reorganization plans are on file. All of these records are open to the public.

The older records are very interesting. In the old school census reports the school clerk had to state the reasons for non-compliance with compulsory attendance laws if someone was not attending school.  Statements such as “needed to work on the farm” or “school more than two miles from home” were often listed.  However, on a few reports, I have found statements such as “parents just too lazy to bring their children to school”!

Many letters are on file from years past that were written to the county superintendent. One of these letters from 1915 expresses concern about a teacher that boarded in a school district patron’s home. He had heard many complaints from students and parents and was concerned for the safety of the school children. The letter tells of the teacher handling food for lunch without first washing after taking mice out of traps, throwing water on the students, chasing three boys outside during the winter in –38 degree weather, sand also chasing one of the students around the outside of the school with hatchet in hand. It also documents that he harassed one of the girls by holding up a match to her red dress and commenting that “she is not quite hot enough to light a match on”. It was interesting to note that the teacher was dismissed but only to be hired at a neighboring school!

Presently there are two public school districts in the county with a total of four school buildings in use. The Lakota School District has an elementary school and a high school both located in the city of Lakota.  Dakota Prairie has an elementary school in McVille and a high school in Petersburg. 

But for many years each township and school district had several schools, and the county superintendent of schools duties were many.  These duties at first were clerical and statistical but gradually the county superintendent became the general county overseer of education, representing the county on one hand and the state on the other.  Supervision of the education programs, meetings with the school officers, record keeping, school visits and inspections, distributing and filing forms, compiling annual reports to the state department, administrating seventh and eighth grade state examinations, distributing reading circle certificates, sponsoring county school activities (such as Music Festival, Play Days, Young Citizens League, Eighth Grade Graduation Exercises, Junior Red Cross), involvement with securing school census reports, checking teacher certification were some of the duties and responsibilities.

Today county superintendents of schools are no longer elected (1991 century code states this began after July 1, 1992 effective January 1, 1993) but are now appointed by boards of county commissioners.  Each one must have a bachelor’s degree in education, a valid ND teaching certificate, and experience in teaching at an approved school.  Since 1993 ND law has permitted counties to employ part-time county superintendents and/or for counties to share superintendents.  In 1995 the ND Legislature allowed counties to appoint a county superintendent-designee if it so desired.

Statutory duties listed in the ND School Century Code include serving as superintendent in small schools that do not have a superintendent; receive and review reports submitted to the Dept. of Public Instruction by the school districts; compiling reports containing statistics and information requested by DPI; assisting in coordinating and planning education services; promote and coordinate cooperation among the school districts within the county; preservation of records and reports; and serve as secretary to the County Committee for School Reorganization.

The county superintendent assumes the primary responsibility in restructuring school district boundaries and assumes a major role in annexation, reorganization, and dissolution processes. He/she is the one responsible for forwarding all maps, land descriptions, and documentation on to the state committee.  The Nelson County Committee has been very active hearing twelve different petitions for annexation, one reorganization, and one dissolution in the 1990’s alone.

Other duties include coordinating the County Spelling Bee, County Mathcounts Competition, and assisting with the state competitions for these two events.  The county supt. conducts annual School Bus Driver Workshops, and issues school bus driver certificates to those meeting requirements.  Issuing child labor permits and disseminating information on home education and open enrollment are also duties. The county superintendent acts as a resource and provides assistance and support to school administrators, teachers, and school business managers in carrying out their responsibilities and when completing state reports.

More than 125 years since their inception, county superintendents of schools in North Dakota still work to bring the best for communities by coordinating educational efforts county-wide.  This will be particularly important into the future with the focus on more shared services due to decreasing populations and schools’ declining enrollments.