Voters in Williston will decide Tuesday whether to approve a $76.2 million bond that would build two new elementary schools and an addition to Williston High School.
In April 2017, the Williston Public School District No. 1 board approved having JLG Architects study the district’s enrollment growth and make recommendations about a plan to increase school capacity.
The proposal the board went with was to build two new elementary schools, each with a capacity of about 600 students, along with an addition to the recently finished high school. That would increase the district’s capacity from about 4,000 students to about 5,000.
The district is also planning to move fifth graders from Bakken Elementary, which opened in the former high school building in 2016, to elementary schools around the district.
Kimberly Semenko, president of the school board, said the district has been planning for growth for years, even before voters approved a bond to build the new high school, which opened in 2016.
“It isn’t something that’s just come out of thin air,” Semenko said.
Enrollment has shot up in the district, growing from 2,110 in 2007 to 4,131 this year. That number has outpaced projections, and the district expects to have 5,000 students enrolled by 2022.
The district is going to hold a final public forum at 6:15 p.m. Monday at Bakken Elementary.
A forum earlier this month saw a split between supporters of the bond and those who questioned it.
Those questions haven’t been limited to the forum or to public meetings, either.
Tom Carns, owner of Carns and Sons Pawn Shop on Second Avenue West in Williston recently put up a sign on his property encouraging people to reject the bond vote. His argument is that the area’s taxes are already too high.
He said he thinks a lot of other people feel the same way but are reluctant to take a public stand.
“I’m 63 years old,” he said. “I don’t care anymore.”
Karrie Tarbox is another person who has been outspoken in opposing the bond referendum. She said Friday that she met earlier this week with school district officials, as well as representatives of JLG and JE Dunn, the company the district chose to build the project if the bond is approved.
The group was helpful and answered her questions, but she said she still doesn’t support the referendum.
“My biggest concern is it’s not responsible spending,” she said. “It’s not fiscally responsible.”
If voters approve the bond, that would put the district very close to the maximum debt allowed by law, she said. That would mean the district couldn’t issue another bond until the bond for the high school, which voters approved in 2014, was paid off.
Tarbox also worries about the cost of the new schools. She said she didn’t think the district’s plan was cost effective. It would add space for about $1,000 students, but that will only meet capacity for a few years.
“I’m not disagreeing that we need classroom space,” she said.
Rather, she thinks there could be other, less expensive options.
“I think we can dig a little deeper,” Tarbox said.
At the public forum earlier this month, one attendee, Deb Kemp, said the way to attract more teachers would be to build better schools.
“If we build those buildings and make them so it’s smaller classrooms, and they’re like, ‘They really believe in these kids,’” she said. “As a community, we need to get behind this.”
Kemp brought up the example of bonds that were passed to pay for the Williston ARC and the county’s jail.
“Now it’s time to do something for our kids. And our teachers.”
For her part, Semenko said the board spent months working with JLG to decide what the best option would be. Board members didn’t want, for example, to ask for a lower bond only to turn around just a few years later and ask voters to approve yet another bond. They decided it was better to ask just once.
“We weighed the decision heavily,” she said.
After nearly a year of public forums, surveys and discussions about what plan to choose, the district will use Monday’s forum to answer any last-minute questions.
“It’s really, truly in the hands of the voters,” Semenko said.