A plan to combine the two school districts that serve Williston got the OK Wednesday, Sept. 9, to move a step closer to a vote, but also faced opposition from residents and former school board members.
The Williams County Committee for School District Annexations, Dissolutions and Reorganizations voted unanimously Wednesday to approve the reorganization plan between Williston Public School District No. 1 and Williams County Public School District No. 8 after a hearing that lasted more than two hours. Among those opposed are former board members Curt Sullivan, Penny Soiseth and Jenny Jorgensen, who have hired attorney Bill Brudvik to help oppose the reorganization.
At the meeting Wednesday, Brudvik said his clients believed the entire reorganization process was invalid because the board wasn’t properly elected. Under state law, a rural school district is defined as any district that contains a city and whose agricultural land is more valuable than its urban land. In rural districts, the majority of board members must also be rural, which the state defines as living on a farm.
Because that isn’t the case with the current board, the plan isn’t valid, Brudvik said.
“We’re asking we not have an up or down vote on the petition today,” Brudvik said to committee members. “Because we have some issues with the legitimacy of the District 8 school board.”
The next step is a hearing before the North Dakota Board of Public Education. If the plan is OK’d at that level, Brudvik’s clients would have 30 days to appeal.
Residents spoke both for and against the plan. Chris Jundt, the president of District 8, said the reorganization has been anticipated by people around the area.
“I think constituents from both districts have been looking forward to this day,” he said.
David Goetz, the interim superintendent in District 8, said he had seen both sides and thought most of the concerns raised had been answered. All of the schools in both districts will still be used, he said.
“There is no way we can close any of our schools down and still house all the students we have,” he said.
Opponents, however, argued things were moving too quickly. In order for the plan to take effect in July 2021, voters must approve it by Dec. 31, 2020.
Dorothy Kuester, a former teacher, said she thought things had moved too fast and that the board members in District 8 had already decided to support reorganization before the plan was finalized.
“And they certainly are not representing the views of everyone in District 8,” she said. “And for that reason I oppose this reorganization plan.”
Former board president Penny Soiseth, who is among the residents opposing the reorganization, said questions she’d seen raised hadn’t been answered.
“(Residents are) not getting answers to questions they’re continually asking,” she said.
She said the board should also be concerned about whether District 8 had the authority to approve the plan.
“There’s too many questions that are not answered,” Soiseth said.
Jennifer Sumner, one of the county board members, said she understood why people wanted to express their opinions both for and against the reorganization.
“They want to be heard today,” she said. “And I think they can be heard at the ballot box also.”
The state board will hold a hearing in October, and if the plan is approved, voters will go to the ballot box in early December.