The troubles Oil Patch schools have had building out facilities in the Bakken was among the deeper dives during day two of the Western Dakota Energy Association’s annual meeting on Thursday, Oct. 31.
Schools need to be considered more like infrastructure, Alexander School Superintendent Leslie Bieber said during a panel of educational leaders talking about problems with the current system of education funding.
“You know for workforce, they are,” she said. “That is one of the first things they look at. And we have always been proud of North Dakota education. We have to keep those up-to-date, so we are not overcrowded, so we don’t steal from Peter to pay Paul for our buildings, and so we can continue to provide that wonderful education out there that does attract workforce to our communities.”
The idea that schools are essential infrastructure for workforce attraction and retention is gaining steam, State Rep. David Richter, R-Williston, said.
He recalls talking to legislators about that very topic long before he became a legislator. At first, there was pushback. But he believes the recent passage of a bill allowing schools to keep Gross Production Taxes that land in their sinking interest funds is a good sign.
“We need to keep working on convincing legislators that (schools) are infrastructure,” Richter said. “I think there is a base now, and we just need to keep working on it.”
Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, meanwhile, appeared to already be among legislators on board with that idea.
In the presentation that followed, the Senate’s Majority Leader talked about his ideas for spending some of the Legacy Fund, and the work in progress is going to include a significant amount for school infrastructure.
Of course, Wardner’s ideas for the Legacy Fund aren’t limited to just schools. He’s taking a comprehensive approach. Roads, behavioral health, low-interest revolving loan funds for infrastructure are among the various puzzle pieces he’s looking at.
“To see the big picture, you need to look out 10, 12 years at where you are going because this is a vision,” he said. “We are going to try to use these resources in the best interest of the state of North Dakota. Not for some individual interest for the state of North Dakota, but for all people.”
Using conservative assumptions, Wardner is estimating the projected earnings on the legacy fund’s principal will be at least $1.13 billion dollars by 2031, while its principal will grow from $6 billion to at least $15 billion.
“There are those who think we should put up to 75 percent of the legacy percent of market value or percent of earnings back into the fund,” Wardner said. “That isn’t going to fly, ladies and gentlemen. We have needs that need to be taken care of if we are going to move this state forward and recruit the workforce we need.”
His proposal would use 4 percent of the conservative estimate of 5 percent market value or earnings. The remaining 1 percent, as well as any additional earnings beyond 5 percent, would go back into the legacy fund to keep it growing beyond expectations.
“Using those assumptions over the next six bienniums, we are not dealing with money on the come. It’s money in the bank that will be ready to spend,” Wardner said.
At the top of his list of proposals, Wardner’s plan would put additional money into the State Highway Trust Fund, to help everyone across the state with road projects.
“Under Prairie Dog, we did nothing for state highways,” Wardner said. “We can’t continue to do that. If we do nothing for state highways, we will have to raise the fuel tax.”
But the funding that can reasonably be raised from increased fuel taxes is nowhere near what’s available from Legacy Fund earnings.
The plan would also include low-interest revolving loan funds for cities and counties to build infrastructure, and for water projects.
There would be funds for building career and technical facilities, behavioral health programs, park systems, higher education and affordable single-family housing as well.
When it comes to schools, Wardner recalled his days as director of the Chamber of Commerce for Dickinson.
“When people came to town, you know what they asked first? They asked what kind of schools do you have,” he said. “We gotta have schools.
He’s gets upset when he hears people in the legislature criticizing education spending.
“When you look at all the kids coming here from all over the world and the challenges the teachers have, I have been in those classrooms,” he said. “We have to take care of this and help them.”
The idea Wardner is developing would include a portion of funds needed for academic facilities in school districts with outdated facilities or rapidly increasing enrollments.
“In my scratch sheets, I have 15 percent of the project, and it would not be for football fields or swimming pools,” Wardner said.
Wardner acknowledged that there are other ideas out there to use the legacy fund, including eliminating income taxes and property taxes.
But he hopes, in the end, to craft a plan that, like Prairie Dog, will attract a broad coalition of support.
“This is a project,” he said. “It is a process to form this policy for a vision for the state going forward.”