The meeting Monday night between Williston Public School District No. 1 and Williams County Public School District No. 8 settled at least one thing — the districts plan to meet again.
What they’ll discuss at future meetings is still up in the air, but both school boards agreed to choose two board members to meet to discuss collaborations.
On other, more substantive issues, though, the boards still seemed far apart.
In the 45-minute long meeting, both sides were able to ask questions of the other. After a coin flip, District 1 went first, with board president Kimberly Semenko asking a long-standing question.
“Is it possible to realign the district boundaries so the school district borders follow city limits?” she asked.
Rob Turner, the superintendent of District 8, said such a realignment would hurt his district. After several failed bond referendums, District 8, which was facing growing enrollment and a shortage of space, chose to use its building fund to pay for a new school.
That school, which is set to open in the fall, is expected to cost about $22 million.
“What we did is use as much of our building fund as we dared,” Turner said of the decision.
If District 8 turned over the property inside Williston’s city limits to District 1, it would cut District 8’s taxable valuation too much.
“We wouldn’t even be able to come close to making our payments (on the new school),” Turner said. “It’s just fiscally irresponsible.”
Semenko also asked whether board members had talked with people who live in District 1 but own property in District 8 and therefore pay property taxes to the district but can’t vote in elections. Some of those people have suggested the two districts should merge, she said.
Jenny Jorgenson, school board president for District 8, said the board hadn’t met with those property owners specifically. But, she said, District 8’s taxes are lower than other districts in Williams County.
District 8 board member Curt Sullivan said he owns property in several states, some of which have higher property taxes than North Dakota.
“I still have to pay them, whether I live there or not,” he said.
He also said he thought merging would hurt more District 8 residents than it would help.
“I do not see the reasoning that would make it equitable for the rest of the farmers,” Sullivan said.
The districts’ respective tax rates came up repeatedly during the meeting. According to the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, District 1’s current tax levy is 124.46 mills. A mill is equal to $1 in tax for every $1,000 of assessed value for a given property.
District 8’s current tax levy is 55.36 mills.
Nesson Public School District No. 2 in Ray has a mill levy of 73.08, Eight Mile Public School District No. 6 in Trenton has a mill levy of 50.97, Tioga Public School District No. 15 has a mill levy of 47.75 and Grenora Public School District No. 99 has a mill levy of 123.12
District 8 has both the largest taxable valuation in the county at $132,218,317 and the largest footprint, at 1,154 square miles. District 1 has a taxable valuation of $113,861,121, the second highest in the county, but a footprint of 16 square miles, the lowest of any county school district.
During Monday’s meeting, Semenko asked Deb Kemp, the Williams County Schools administrative assistant, whether she had figures on how taxes would change if the districts merged.
Kemp said if District 1 voted to dissolve into District 8, taxes for District 1 residents would go down by about $155 on a $100,000 home, while taxes in District 8 would go up by the same amount.
Jorgenson, however, pointed out that North Dakota law requires any district that’s dissolving to be absorbed by an adjacent high school district. District 8 does not have a high school and is a K-8 only district. Figures for how taxes would change if District 8 were to dissolve into District 1 weren’t available at the meeting.
District 8 board members asked far fewer questions than their District 1 counterparts. Sullivan, when it was District 8’s turn, asked the evening’s most pointed question.
“What do you want?” he asked.
Semenko said she thought it would be in the best interests of both districts to dissolve and combine into one.
Later, Semenko followed up on that point and asked whether the District 8 board members had considered combining with District 1.
“Have you stopped to think about what a powerhouse it would be in western North Dakota if both districts were to combine into one?” she asked.
Members of the District 8 board expressed reservations about such a move, though.
Board member Amber Anderson said she was concerned about busing. District 8 buses students, some of whom have to travel long distances to the schools, while District 1 does not.
Another concern was that if District 8 were to vote to dissolve, it wouldn’t necessarily all go to District 1. The other districts in the county would want some of the land, as well.
Turner said that as a newcomer to the area — he’s been here for about four years — he’s often asked why the districts don’t combine.
“Yeah, from the outside, it looks perfect,” he said.
But there are issues, including that at the current funding levels, taxes in District 8 could go up as much as 60 percent.
“From a board that is an elected representative of the taxpayer, it seems like it would be a disservice,” Turner said.
There were also concerns that voters in District 8 could lose their say in a larger combined district.
District 1 board member Brion Norby said he was open to working with anyone to help find a solution to District 1’s space problems. The district needs more space, he said.
“Our growth is not going away,” Norby said. “How can we have a solution that will benefit kids?”
Anderson asked whether the districts could jointly hire someone to study the possibility of merging and answer the questions both sides have.
District 8 board member Deanna Senior said hiring consultants isn’t something she likes to do, but said the two districts working together was a good idea.
“That could only benefit families and students in the region,” she said.
District 8 board member Joseph Keel said he agreed that the districts should collaborate.
“We are Williston,” he said. “You are Williston. This is Williston. It’s time to act like we are Williston, not just District 1 and District 8.”
Both boards will designate two members at their April meetings to start meeting with their counterparts.
“(Let’s) see what we can do to improve both districts and make us even better,” Semenko said.