The school board for Williston Public School District No. 1 unveiled on Monday four options for dealing with overcrowding ranging in cost from $37.5 million to $68 million.
The meeting Monday evening was one in a series of public meetings planned for October for the public to give their input on which plan they prefer. The board will meet again at 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 16 at Rickard Elementary and at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 22 at Williston Middle School.
The board hopes to make a decision by the end of the month about which option to pursue in an early January bond referendum.
On Monday, school board President Joanna Baltes pointed out that the four options the board presented different in many ways from the plan the public rejected in March.
That proposal, which was put forth before Baltes, Dr. Theresa Hegge and Thomas Kalil were elected to the board in June, would have cost about $77 million and replaced two current elementary schools with new, 600-student schools, as well as built an addition onto Williston High School.
“The plans are very different than what was put forward in March,” Baltes said.
For one thing, no matter which option is picked, none of the district’s current elementary schools will be closed.
“We really need all hands on deck,” Hegge said of the district’s enrollment situation.
All four options also put aside $6.9 million to address problems at existing elementary schools, including security and accessibility. None of the district’s elementary schools, which were built between 1951 and 1983, meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“We really need to be responsible about that,” Baltes said of the importance of addressing those shortcomings.
The four plans would also all move fifth-graders out of Bakken Elementary, which currently handles fifth and sixth grades, and back into the district’s other five elementaries. Bakken Elementary would be combined with Williston Middle School, which shares its site, and that would eliminate overcrowding in sixth, seventh and eighth grades through 2024, based on recent projections done for the district by a consulting firm.
All four also include an increase in the amount the district levies in property tax for its building fund. Right now, the district levies 10 mills, which works out to about $45 per $100,000 in property value. Doubling that would give the district more money to handle more upgrades to buildings, but would have to be approved by a supermajority of voters.
Where the four options differ is in cost, the number of additional seats they would add and whether they address overcrowding at Williston High School.
That issue has been a sticking point for the board. Public feedback after March’s defeated bond referendum pointed toward people being upset that the high school, which opened in 2016, was already overcrowded. It was built with a capacity of 1,200 students but an addition to handle about 200 more students was planned for the future.
The school is over capacity this year, and Baltes said not addressing it now could leave the district worse off in the future.
“It’s just not something we can ignore,” she said.
Option 1, the least costly, would build one new elementary school with a capacity of 600 students. The school would cost $30 million and with money for facility upgrades and for interest payments, the total bond would be $37.5 million.
The issue with that plan is that it wouldn’t fully address the district’s overcrowding at the elementary level, Baltes said.
“We would still be 300 kids over capacity in 2020 when we opened the new facility,” she said.
Option 2 would be the most expensive, at a total bond amount of $68 million. It would build two new elementary schools, each with a capacity of 600 students, and would leave the district about 300 students under capacity when it opened.
“We wouldn’t need to build any more elementary schools for capacity,” Baltes said, saying it would deal with the district’s elementary needs until about 2027.
Options 3 and 4 both would build one new elementary school and an addition to WHS. Option 3 would build a 750-student elementary school and cost a total of $50 million, while Option 4 would build a 900-student elementary school and cost a total of $55 million. That would put the district 114 and 224 under capacity in 2020, respectively.
There are possible drawbacks to each. Both, for example, would only delay the need for a new elementary school for between two and three years, Baltes said.
There was also some concern during the last referendum about the size of schools, Hegge said.
“One of the things that we have heard in feedback from the community, is that people do like neighborhood schools,” she said.
But, she said, the 900-student school would be the best value for the district.
District superintendent Jeffrey Thake said he’s heard from colleagues that elementary schools of more than 600 students are becoming more common and that they can still work, educationally speaking.
“When you’re talking about 21st century education, it can still happen in a six-section school,” he said, referring to the fact that in a 900-student school there would be six classes of each grade level.
Baltes said she hoped the community would get involved during the decision-making process and share their thoughts about what option the board should pursue. But, she said, as the area continues to gain population, something needs to be done to increase school capacity.
“We’re a growing community, we’re going to be building schools,” she said.