As the deadline to call a special election in early January approaches, the school board for Williston Public School District No. 1 is working to find a plan that the public will approve.
In March, the public voted against a plan to issue a $77 million bond to replace two older elementary schools with new, larger ones and to build an addition to Williston High School to accommodate 200 more students.
After originally hoping to have a bond referendum as part of the November General Election, the school board decided that more study was needed and set a new target of January for a special election. In order to meet that deadline, the board has to OK ballot language by the end of October.
Enrollment in the district has doubled since the 2007-08 school year, and enrollment in kindergarten through sixth grades has increased by two-and-a-half times.
One area where the board has spent a considerable amount of time while preparing for a new bond referendum is determining what the need in the area is and how that might change in the coming years. The district worked with consulting firm RSP, which issued a report in September with new enrollment projections.
The district had older projections, but wanted to make sure the public had faith in the numbers, board member Dr. Theresa Hegge explained at a public meeting Monday.
“We sought out additional, third-party, non-biased data,” Hegge said.
The numbers show a massive increase in enrollment since 2007, which would be expected given the population increase during the oil boom of the early part of this decade. Even when the price of oil dropped dramatically in 2015 and 2016 and activity slowed down, enrollment growth didn’t.
During the 2007-08 school year, total enrollment was 2,109 students, and that climbed to 4,074 during the 2017-18 school year. This year’s enrollment is more than 4,350. Projections from the study done by RSP said a total enrollment of nearly 6,500 students is possible in 2027-28.
Much of that growth has come at the elementary level. For 2007-08, there were 996 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. That number was 2,310 for 2017-18 and is about 2,450 this year. RSP projections put the total number of students in kindergarten through sixth grade at more than 3,200 by 2027-28.
That compares to an increase of 766 high schoolers in 2007-08 to 1,187 in 2017-18 and 1,274 this year.
That is one of the reasons the district is looking at elementary schools as what’s most needed right now.
This school year is the first time in five years where the district is over capacity at the elementary, middle and high-school levels. Across all three levels, the district has more than 470 more students than it has room for, including in the 52 modular classrooms spread out at the elementary and middle-school levels.
One goal of each of the options the board is considering is to move fifth-graders back to the elementary schools. In 2016, when the new high school opened, the districts fifth- and sixth-graders moved into the old high school building, now called Bakken Elementary. By moving fifth-graders back to elementary buildings, the district could combine Bakken Elementary and Williston Middle School, which share a site, easing overcrowding at the middle school level for several years.
Another reason the district is focusing on building new elementary schools is the age of the current buildings. Williston Middle School was built in 2003, and Williston High School was built in 2016. The newest elementary school is Hagan Elementary, which was built in 1982. The oldest is Rickard, which was built in 1951.
Although the districts five buildings that currently handle kindergarten through fourth grades may have had some renovations over the years, they all are lacking in serious areas. All were built before the modern focus on school security and none comply with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Any plan the board puts to a public vote will fix some of those problems, school board President Joanna Baltes said Monday.
“All security and accessibility issues need to be addressed at the elementary level,” she said.
On Monday, the board showed the public four possible options ranging in cost from $35.7 million to $68 million and adding space for between 600 and 1,200 additional students in the district.
The costs include construction and furnishing the building, as well as potential interest costs. For now, though, the numbers are only estimates, but they’re based on a national standard, Hegge said.
The nationally accepted estimate for the cost of a new school is about $50,000 per student, she said. That means a 600-student school would cost about $30 million, while a 900-student school would cost about $42 million. The district won’t know the actual cost until the project goes out for bid, something that won’t happen unless the public OK’s the bond in January, but those are numbers that give the district a starting place.
Two of the plans — the ones the district has called Option 1 and Option 2 — focus exclusively on elementary schools. Option 1, which is projected to cost $37.5 million would build a 600-student elementary school and set aside $6.9 million for improvements to other schools. It would add $103 per $100,000 of property value in tax each year.
Option 2, projected to cost $68 million, would build two 600-student elementary schools, as well as raise the $6.9 million for older buildings. It would add $192 per $100,000 of property value in tax each year.
Option 3, at $50 million, would set aside $6.9 for existing buildings, would add space for 200 students at Williston High School and build a 750-student elementary school. It would add $142 per $100,000 of property value in tax each year.
Option 4, $55 million, would do everything Option 3 would but would build an elementary school for 900 students instead of 750. It would add $155 per $100,000 of property value in tax each year.
None of the options would solve all of the district’s overcrowding problems entirely — that would likely cost too much money. Option 1, for example would leave the district still 300 students over capacity, while options 2, 3 and 4 would give the district space for anywhere from about 100 to about 300 additional students. Option 2 wouldn’t address overcrowding at the high school, while options 3 and 4 would only delay the need for another elementary school.
“Every single options has its consequences for what our enrollment is,” Baltes said.
District 1 is holding public meetings on the four options at 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 16 at Rickard Elementary and at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 22 at Williston Middle School.