The Williams County Commission is going to offer up to $6 million in grant money to the county’s six school districts and will also collect data to help the districts better plan for growth and cooperate.
The commission unanimously approved two school-related projects at its regular meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 6. Commission President David Montgomery said the idea was to take $10 million from the county’s general fund balance and make grants available for both schools and for townships to help with infrastructure.
The county would divide up to $4 million between townships using the process that already exists for townships to apply for funding that comes from frost law permits. The other $6 million would be set aside for the schools.
The school money would be divided proportionally based on the percentage of county students who attend each district. That would make Grenora Public School District No. 99, which had 182 students at the beginning of last school year, eligible for $172,800 in grants, while Williston Public School District No. 1, which had 4,458 students, would be eligible for up to $4,134,600.
Williams County Public School District No. 8, the second-largest district, with 665 students, would be eligible for up to $631,200.
The money would have to be used to either pay off debt or pay for construction to deal with increased enrollment.
Montgomery said he started thinking about a grant program like this last year, when District 1 put together a task force to look at options for new schools.
“This is not something that’s come about in the last several weeks,” Montgomery said. “This is something I’ve been working on for well over a year.”
The plan is to have two distributions — one for this year and one for 2020, with the latter based on enrollment figures as of Sept. 10.
Helen Askim, the human resources director for the county, said one of the goals was to help every district in the county.
“It’s not just a (District) 1 and (District) 8 problem,” she said. “There are six districts in the county and all of them are impacted.”
The other driving force was multiple failures by District 1 and District 8 to get voters to approve bonds to build new schools. In March 2018, voters in District 1 turned down an effort to spend $76 million to replace two elementary schools and add on to Williston High School.
Two efforts in 2019 in District 1 to bond for $60 million to build two new elementary schools and add on to the high school also failed to get the 60 percent of votes required to pass.
A proposal in District 8 to build two elementary schools and a high school with a total cost of $89 million also failed.
Montgomery said he thought voters would have approved a single school, but because there was so much need, they weren’t willing to take on that much debt.
Some districts, including Grenora, Eight Mile Public School District No. 6 in Trenton and Nesson Public School District No. 2 in Ray, have been able to pass bonds, but larger districts have not been able to.
“Somebody needs to step up here and help not only Williston 1, but all of the districts,” he said.
Joanna Baltes, school board president for District 1, said she knew county officials had wanted to help schools if they could.
“We are absolutely thrilled that it went through,” she said.
The district is raising money to help pay for a $12 million proposal for what officials are calling an innovation academy that would be part of Bakken Elementary and Williston Middle School. Baltes said she knew every district in Williams County was seeing jumps in enrollment, so it made sense to include all of them in the grant program.
“I think it’s just a great gesture,” she said.
The other school-related project that was approved Tuesday is an effort by the county to gather information about how districts could better cooperate with the goal of making recommendations on how to best deal with rapidly increasing enrollment.
The county is going to work with Gov. Doug Burgum’s office and the state’s Department of Public Instruction on the study. That effort is going to kick off Monday, Aug. 12, with a meeting between representatives from every school district in the county and state and county officials.
That meeting will be at Mountrail-Williams Electric Cooperative at 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 12. The meeting is open to the public.