A passing comment during a District 8 board meeting Monday night ruffled a few feathers in Williams County, and prompted Chairman David Montgomery to speak out during the commission meeting, for the public record.
The comment made during the meeting, in which District 8 agreed to contribute $3 million to District 1 for a high school addition, suggested that the two districts had met with an anonymous third party to discuss the situation, Montgomery said.
Two Williams County officials were the third party, but, Montgomery said, there was never any intention of being anonymous.
“We were not trying to hide anything. I have nothing to hide, and Beau has nothing to hide,” he said. “But the public needs to understand that this is a process. It didn’t make sense to discuss this in a public meeting without first knowing what District 8 and District 1 want to do.”
Montgomery said the idea was just to have a low pressure conversation, to see if the county could do anything to help the districts resolve what has been a stressful situation for everyone involved. He invited Beau Anderson to help him with the meeting because of his knowledge of District 8.
“So if people want to point fingers, they certainly can. At me,” Montgomery said. “I was the one who requested that we get together. And the reason I thought we should get together with the two school districts is because I, along with many others, were concerned and frustrated with what was happening.”
Montgomery said he called Joanna Baltes and District 1 Superintendent Jeff Thake, while Anderson invited Penny Soiseth and District 8 Superintendent Rob Turner to sit down with them to discuss the overcrowding situation the districts are wrestling with.
“A first question that was asked was would you like the county to help if we can,” Montgomery said. “And the answer was yes. So we sat down and it was just a discussion. No decisions were made.”
District 1 has asked District 8 for $12 million to add 400 seats to Williston High School to continue taking in District 8 high school students, Montgomery pointed out. But, he added, District 8 obviously doesn’t have that much money to contribute without going to voters for a bond issue. District 8 was willing to contribute substantially to the project up front, however, Anderson and Montgomery learned.
From there, Montgomery and Anderson suggested the county could explore awarding $5 million out of grant funds it recently announced for area schools in 2019, to help build infrastructure.
“Then we will figure out a way to come up with the other $4 million,” Montgomery said.
The solution is a three-step process, the first step being District 8’s decision Monday night to contribute $3 million to an addition for WHS.
“Now District 1 will have to decide if they want to participate in it,” Montgomery said. “My understanding is that they will be calling a special meeting to consider that.”
After that, the matter will come to Williams County, for commissioners to decide whether they will participate.
“My request will be, if the other two processes go along, that we, in 2020, extend the District 1 and District 8 grant funds toward the $12 million, and look at extending that to 2021, so that the addition to the high school would be completely paid by the Gross Production Taxes the county receives.”
Those taxes, Montgomery pointed out, are in lieu of property taxes.
“Counties, schools and cities are all beneficiaries of payments in lieu of taxes, so it is no cost, in my opinion, to the taxpayers of Williams County, and helps alleviate — whether temporary or long-term that is for the two boards to decide — but the positive thing is that it adds 400 seats to Williston High School.”
Montgomery said what has bothered him the most about the discussion of overcrowding issues at the schools has been the effect on the students and their parents. As he talked about that, he became a little choked up for a moment. Then he continued, saying, “You put yourself in their shoes, and what they are going to do with their kids,” he said.
Whether the solution that the three parties are working out will stand for the long haul is beside the point, Montgomery added.
“We cannot predict what will happen in 1, 2, 4 years, 5 years, 6 years,” he said. “We need to deal with what is happening today.”