Developing and then agreeing on a reorganization plan was just the first step for merging the two school districts that serve Williston — the plan now has to find support at multiple levels to become reality.
On Monday, Aug. 10, the boards for both Williston Public School District No. 1 and Williams County public School District No. 8 voted unanimously to approve a plan that would merge them into a single district. The plan must go through public hearings at both the county and state level and then be approved by voters in both districts to take effect.
Thomas Kalil, president of the District 1 school board, said he was pleased the boards were able to sit down and negotiate a plan that both were happy with.
“The real challenge is going to be the election,” Kalil said.
Chris Jundt, president of the District 8 school board, noted the districts and the school boards would have to follow the same rules for the reorganization as for a bond vote — they cannot advocate for one position or another, only provide information to the public. Still, he said, he was excited for the process to move forward.
“I think it even exceeded my expectations,” Jundt said.
The plan was submitted to Jodi Johnson, the county superintendent of schools, and the next step is a public hearing. The committee that oversees proposed land transfers between school districts and annexations will meet to discuss the plan Sept. 9.
If the county committee approves the plan, then it goes to the North Dakota Board of Public Education for another public hearing. That would happen at the board’s scheduled meeting on Oct. 19.
Finally, if the board OK’s the plan, there will be a special election before Dec. 31. That election is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 8. If a majority of voters in both districts approve the plan, it would take effect July 1, 2021.
If the plan passes, an election for a new board will likely take place in early January, Kalil said.
The composition of the board was something that was an early point of compromise in the plan. Board members in District 1 all supported the idea of seven members, with each elected at-large. District 8 board members and residents both argued that would mean people outside city limits would have no say in the school district.
The sides settled on a seven-member board with five members elected at-large and two from outside Williston city limits.
“I think we found a good balance,” Jundt said of the board composition.
Kalil agreed. Because some of the seats are at large, that means anyone, whether they live inside the city or not, could run. But, he said, the proposed configuration helps ensure a voice from outside Williston.
“It does make it easier for someone whose outside the city to get elected,” Kalil said.
The two also spoke of the district’s financial plan as an example of compromise.
Under the plan, residents would pay different property tax rates based on their current district, with residents of the current District 1 paying 114.69 mills and residents from the current District 8 paying 95 mills. That compares to 126.36 mills this year for District 1 and 83.54 mills this year for District 8.
The higher rate for District 1 reflects the bond voters OK’d to build Williston High School, which opened in 2016.
The breakdown was loosely based on work by Paul Stremick, a North Dakota educator with experience handling reorganizations. It reflected that changes in the way schools are funded would mean taxes would likely have gone up in District 8 based on new requirements.
District 8 residents will see an increase, Kalil said, but they would also then have a high school.
“It’s an increase, there’s no question,” he said, “but it’s not the kind of increase they would have if they were on their own (and had to build a new school).”
Jundt said he was hopeful the reorganized district would also be able to add school buildings if needed. Both District 1 and District 8 have failed multiple times to pass a bond over the last three years.
Because the new district’s taxable valuation will be so much larger than either was on its own, that will reduce the amount each person would have to pay for a new building.
“Hopefully that’s a little more palatable for voters from a cost perspective,” Jundt said.