Williston Public School District No. 1 held a meeting this week to get the public’s opinion on building two new elementary schools. The district also put a survey online for residents. More meetings are coming in the next few months, and a bond referendum is likely in the spring. Whenever we publish a story about the possibility of building new schools, some of the same questions pop up. We wanted to offer some answers to those questions. These answers are based on information from the district, school board meetings and statistics. This is not an endorsement of District 1’s proposal to build two new elementary schools and an addition to the high school. Rather, we think the public should have the answers to these common questions as they make up their minds.
Why does the district want to build more schools — didn’t the new high school just open?
District 1 did, indeed, open a new high school in fall 2016. When enrollment growth started to speed up during the boom, the district held a bond referendum and voters approved the new high school. That allowed the district to repurpose the old high school, which is adjacent to Williston Middle School, to handle fifth- and sixth-grade students. That relieved the pressure enrollment growth was putting on elementary schools, at least temporarily.
The enrollment growth hasn’t slowed down, though, despite the oil boom tailing off. In fact, actual enrollment has outpaced their projections. The high school was built to handle about 1,200 students and is already at that number. Four of the district’s five elementary schools also have more students than they were built to handle.
Why didn’t the district plan for this?
In many ways, District 1 has been planning for growth since before the new high school was built. District officials have said that a combination of factors, including the high cost of construction during the boom, forced them to limit the capacity of the high school to 1,200. Consultants from JLG have also cautioned against building in too much excess capacity. Doing so risks angering voters and would raise project costs substantially, they told the school board earlier this year.
Aren’t there portable classrooms? Can’t the district add more?
Every elementary school and Williston Middle School make use of portable classrooms. In fact, if the district does approve a plan to build two new elementary schools with a combined capacity of 1,200 students, portable classrooms would still be used throughout the district. At several board meetings this year, consultants from JLG have warned that portable classrooms aren’t a good solution for growth. They have told the school board that the main school buildings aren’t designed to handle the number of students who need to eat meals or use other facilities.
Didn’t voters just approve an extension of a 1-cent sales tax?
People often ask why District 1 isn’t using the money raised by sales tax in Williston to cover certain expenses. The reason is simple: that money goes to the city, not the district. In North Dakota, the only tax that school districts can levy is property tax. Forgive us if this seems obvious, but this is a misconception we see often. For a very long time, the borders of District 1 and the city of Williston were essentially identical. That changed when the city annexed large amounts of property several years ago. But no matter the boundaries, the two entities are separate and have no say in what the other does.