Voters will go to the polls Jan. 8 to decide whether to fund a $60 million plan to build two new elementary schools and an expansion to Williston High School as well as fund renovations to all the elementary schools in Williston Public School District No. 1.
The district’s school board voted unanimously Monday to put the bond referendum on the ballot for a January special election. Voters will also decide whether to approve increasing the district’s building fund levy from 10 mills, which works out to about $45 per year for every $100,000 of taxable value, to 20 mills.
The plan approved at Monday’s special meeting would build two 600-seat elementary schools and add 400 seats to the high school. The election will come about 10 months after the district’s last, failed, bond referendum.
In March, voters rejected a $77 million plan that would have replaced two elementary schools and added on to the high school.
Monday’s vote came after months of discussion and weeks of public forums where the board discussed possible options for handling enrollment growth.
The option selected would fund $30 million for one 600-seat elementary, $13.6 million for the high school expansion, $6.9 million for improvements to accessibility and security at the district’s elementary schools and put $15 million toward a second 600-seat elementary. The balance of the cost of the second elementary would come from taking $6.5 million from the district’s building fund and the increase in the district’s building fund levy.
All four board members at Monday’s meeting praised the option because it cost less than paying for two elementary schools up front and it addressed overcrowding at the high school, which opened in 2016 with a capacity of 1,200.
Because of increasing enrollment, the high school is already at capacity and projections have it getting more crowded over the next several years.
Board Vice President Thomas Kalil said that option was the one he was most comfortable with.
“Now is the time to build out the high school and solve this problem,” he said.
Board member Dr. Theresa Hegge said she preferred the option the board went with because it offered a more creative solution to paying for schools by financing part of one school over time. It also would get the district more room at every grade level.
“It actually gets us ahead on all fronts, with a lower price tag,” she said.
Board member Heather Wheeler said she liked it because it would help address class sizes, which is a concern at the elementary levels in particular.
“(This plan will) allow students to be more productive while the teachers can be more creative,” she said.
Board President Joanna Baltes also liked the plan, saying it would help show legislators that the district was doing all it could to deal with enrollment growth.
“It’s the least expensive alternative that we have in front of us that takes care of all our seating needs,” she said.
Baltes also noted that other districts around the state have increased their building fund levy to 20 mills. That would be a requirement for schools to get state assistance for building new facilities under a plan proposed last week by state Sen. David Rust, R-Tioga.
One of the new schools would be located near University Avenue, while the other would be on the west side of town.
“I think it’s important to note these are two new locations,” Hegge said.
One of the goals the board had when developing new options for schools was that no existing school could be taken offline, because space is at such a premium.
Baltes said the Jan. 8 election date allows for enough time to put out absentee ballots. It also allows more time for the district to put out information about the plans to educate the public.
If the bond referendum and mill levy increase are approved, then the district hopes to take bids in the spring and break ground by May 1. The new schools would open in fall 2020.
If voters only approve one half of the request, the the district will move forward with what’s been approved while deciding what to do about what voters rejected, Baltes said.