A bill that passed the House last week would change the procedure school districts can use to dissolve. One of the effects is it would allow the board of Williston Public School District No. 1 to vote to dissolve and then be absorbed by Williams County Public School District No. 8.
What would it do?
House Bill 1434 would allow high school districts to dissolve into K-8 districts if there aren’t any adjacent high school districts in the same county. The bill was introduced in the House by Williston state Reps. David Richter and Patrick Hatlestad, as well as Reps. Jeffery Magrum, R-Hazelton, and Denton Zubke, R-Watford City, and in the Senate by Sens. Brad Bekkedahl, R-Williston, and David Rust, R-Tioga.
When testifying about the bill, Zubke brought up District 1 specifically.
“An example of where this would apply is in the Williston school district,” he said. “District 1 has only 15 square miles of property with a taxable valuation of $120 million and is educating 4,350-plus students, K through 12. District 8 has a taxable valuation of $150 million and is educating approximately 650 students K through 8. This bill would allow District 1 to dissolve and they would be absorbed — if they have absolutely no other options.”
Zubke’s figures are rough estimates. According to the latest figures from the state, District 1’s taxable valuation is $113,861,121, while District 8 has $132,218,317 in taxable valuation.
Why does this matter?
There has long been an uneasy coexistence between District 1 and District 8, including questions about the districts merging. The vast majority of high-school age students from District 8 attend Williston High School. District 8 pays tuition to District 1, but that covers operating costs. There’s no mechanism in state law for one district to help another pay for buildings.
Under the current law, high school districts aren’t allowed to dissolve into K-8 districts. There would only be two ways that the two districts could merge.
One would be if the board of District 8, which is a K-8 district, voted to dissolve. In that case, the district’s property would be divided between the districts it borders. The other would be if 60 percent or more of eligible voters from both districts approved a merger.
Why would they do that?
District 1 is facing growing enrollment and aging facilities. It was the second-fastest growing district in the state between last school year and this one, in terms of the number of students added. Two attempts to get voters to pass a bond have failed in the last year. In March, a bond referendum failed with only about 40 percent of the vote in favor. The second vote, in January, got about 58 percent of votes in favor, short of the 60 percent supermajority required.
A third vote is scheduled for April 9. Voters will weigh in on a $60 million bond and an increase to the district’s building fund property tax levy. That plan, the same one voted on in January, would build two 600-student elementary schools, an addition to Williston High School and upgrades to the district’s existing elementary schools.
One thing all three plans had in common is that they would fund an expansion of Williston High School. That school, which opened in 2016, is already over capacity.
The expansion would add space for 400 more students, bringing its capacity to 1,600. Because District 8 doesn’t have a high school, its high-school age students go to neighboring districts.
Most, about 240, attend WHS.
District 8 is also considering a bond referendum. Board members are hoping to call a special election in May, but the proposal still isn’t finalized. One option is building two 600-student elementary schools and a 600-student high school.
What are they saying?
Even if it were an option for District 1 to dissolve itself and be absorbed by District 8, there’s no saying that would happen.
Joanna Baltes, school board president for District 1, said the change would give the district more options and could help the two districts work out a way they could share the cost of building an addition to Williston High School. She remains hopeful, however, that voters will approve a $60 million bond and an increase to the district’s building fund property tax levy in April’s special election.
“I definitely think my responsibility to the kids of the district is their education,” Baltes said.
Jenny Jorgenson, school board president in District 8, said she thinks it would be a burden on the district’s taxpayers if the District 1 were to dissolve into District 8. She also questioned why the state would change the process districts could use to dissolve.
“I think it’s really poor that they’d take it out of the constituents’ hands,” Jorgenson said.