A consolidation that started 70 years ago in Williams County moved a step further in December.
It was in May 1950 that voters around rural Williams County approved a reorganization created New Public School District No. 8 — later renamed Williams County Public School District No. 8. On Dec. 8, voters in District 8 and Williston Public School District No. 1 approved a reorganization plan that created Williston Basin School District No. 007.
The relationship between the two districts was at times uneasy, especially in recent years when the boards of the two clashed over the enrollment of District 8 students at Williston High School. Because District 8 only offered kindergarten through eighth grade, families were able to choose any neighboring district for high school, with more than 90% choosing WHS.
As the population in District 1 grew during the boom years of the early 2010s, schools became overcrowded, and the board tried several times to pass bonds to build new schools. A proposal to build a new high school eventually passed after being scaled back from a capacity of 1,600 to a capacity of 1,200.
WHS opened in 2016. By 2019 it was already overcrowded, and that year, after three attempts to pass bonds to expand the high school, build new elementary schools and renovate existing schools, the tension between the two districts came to a head.
In September 2019, the two boards had a joint meeting where District 1 asked District 8 to consider paying about $12 million for a 400-student expansion for WHS, an idea that found little support from District 8’s board members.
Another idea came up publicly at that meeting, one that had been whispered about for years: reorganization.
That proposal found little favor, either.
The back and forth between the boards included a decision by District 1 to declare WHS was overcrowded and that no one from outside the district would be able to enroll until it had more capacity.
At a heated, crowded meeting in October 2019, one District 8 board member suggested dissolving the district, a proposal that failed. A divided board then approved telling the state that it would offer grades 9 through 12 for the 2020-21 school year.
A voice vote early in the meeting on whether to allow public comment at the meeting failed, something that ended up prompting a group of community members, led by Chris Jundt, to file paperwork to have two District 8 board members — Penny Soiseth and Curt Sullivan — recalled.
Jundt also had done a survey asking whether people would support District 8 becoming a K-12 district, reorganizing with District 1 or dissolving entirely. He said 72% of those who responded supported dissolving or merging, while 18% favored becoming a K-12 district.
Through the fall of 2019, the District 8 board heard from residents who supported doing what was needed to keep students at WHS and from those who wanted to start a high school.
A compromise solution appeared to be in hand in the late fall when the boards agreed to use grant money from the Williams County Commission, along with a contribution from the county directly, to pay for an expansion of WHS. In return, District 8 students would remain at the school for at least several more years.
Further disagreements about whether District 8 should continue to pay tuition for its students attending WHS scuttled that plan, leaving the future of District 8’s high school students very much in doubt as 2020 dawned.
In February, District 8 voters weighed in on both a bond proposal and the recall of Soiseth and Sullivan. Jundt, along with Sarah Williams, won seats on the board. The bond proposal got 56%, falling short of the 60% required to pass.
Their arrival on the board led to a study by educational consultant Paul Stremick on the financial impact of reorganizing, dissolving or continuing to operate. That, in turn, led to a vote by both boards in June to begin negotiating a plan to reorganize into one district.
The broad outlines were established early, with all schools to remain open and all teachers expected to be offered new positions with the new district. The boards were able to reach compromises on sticking points about how many members should come from outside Williston city limits and whether a preference for negotiating with Jeffrey Thake, current District 1 superintendent, should be written into the plan.
During the negotiation process, the District 8 board also discussed what land should be transferred to surrounding districts. Eventually, the district transferred a total of $19.8 million in land to Tioga Public School District No. 15, Nesson Public School District No. 2 in Ray and Grenora Public School District No. 99.
In August, the boards both approved the plan, which went before the Williams County Committee for School District Annexations, Dissolutions and Reorganizations in September and the North Dakota Board of Public Education in October.
On Dec. 8, a year after a deal to keep District 8 students enrolled at WHS fell apart, voters overwhelmingly approved the reorganization.
For voters in Williston Public School District No. 1, the margin was 86.6% yes and 13.4% no. For Williams County Public School District No 8, the vote went 59.6% yes and 40.4% no.
On Dec. 16, voters picked the board for the new district, named Williston Basin School District No. 007. Sitting board members from both districts took all seven seats on the new board.
From District 1, Thomas Kalil, Heather Wheeler and Cory Swint won seats. From District 8, Jundt and John Kasmer won at-large seats while Kyle Renner and Williams won the two seats reserved for people living outside Williston city limits.
The board has approved hiring Thake to lead the new district, and Sherri Heser, current business manager for District 8, has been hired as the new district’s business manager.
The board has authority to negotiate a contract with teachers but little else until July 1, when the new district officially opens.