State officials must do more than listen to the school districts in the western part of North Dakota — they must act to ensure every student statewide is getting the best education possible.
It's not a revelation that the schools serving western North Dakota have grown tremendously over the last decade. Student enrollment in Williston Public School District No. 1 has double since 2009.
This year, District 1 saw the second largest year-over-year increase in student numbers, behind only West Fargo. Williams County Public School District No. 8 saw the second largest percentage increase, with only McKenzie County outpacing it.
Yet, as District 1 board president pointed out, a $115 million school construction plan was set to cost West Fargo residents an extra $15 or so per $100,000 of property value. In Williston, a $60 million plan would have added $200 per $100,000 of property value to residents' tax bills.
One of the reasons the taxable valuation available to school districts in the west is that oil and gas producers don't pay property tax. Instead, they pay a state Gross Production Tax.
The original idea was that the money from that tax would go back to local governments as way to make up for lost property tax revenue. Now, however, school districts are seeing their aid from the state slashed based on how much Gross Production Tax money they take in.
That leaves school districts in the west unable to use that money to help cope with the impact oil and gas development has had on enrollment. But many in the Legislature and other parts of state government thing the funding formula is working just fine.
They're wrong. The formula, originally designed to ensure equity in education statewide, is instead perpetuating inequity.
As District 1 board vice president Thomas Kalil noted, a student in Williston isn't getting the same education as one in West Fargo when the Williston student is in a classroom with more than 30 other students, or is taking classes in hallways or closets.
The state can act, and it must act soon.
A recent proposal would have the state look at how it's spending the earnings from the $6 billion Legacy Fund. Something missing from that is the idea that schools could benefit from the revenue the fund generates.
Right now, the earnings from the Legacy Fund go into the state's general fund. Critics of this have a point — the idea behind the Legacy Fund was to use the money to create lasting change in the state.
Our question is this: What better legacy could the state have that making sure every student statewide gets a truly transformative education? We have the money to make that happen, if we want education to be a priority
The more than $415 million in earnings for this biennium could help ease the burden of school construction statewide. Even if the Legislature decided not to fully fund school construction projects, it could fund a portion of them, helping to ease the burden on local communities.
The biggest complaint voters in Williston had about the proposals to build new schools was that the state takes the revenue from oil and gas production and has offered no help to the school districts affected by the industry's growth. Those voters have a point.
The revenue from oil and gas belongs to the people of North Dakota as a whole. But to allow the parts of the state most affected by the industry to fall behind is counterproductive and risks the future prosperity of the entire state.
School board members and legislators from the west had a chance to put that in front of state officials last week. Now those state officials need to do something to solve the problem.