In a little more than a week, voters will go to the polls to decide whether Williston Public School District No. 1 will be able to build two new elementary schools and upgrade other buildings in the district.
The ballot will ask voters whether to approve a $60 million bond and increase the district’s building fund property tax levy from 10 mills to 20 mills. We think voters should support this effort by voting yes on both questions; here’s why.
More than 2,000 new students have come into the district in just the last eight years — from 2,260 in the 2009-10 school year to more than 4,300 students for the 2018-19 school year. Even with a new high school, which added about 1,200 seats to the district, that is growth well beyond what the district has the ability to handle. The growth has been especially large in the elementary grades, and there are kindergarten and first-grade classes with more than 30 students. Last year, the district was overcapacity, and this year it’s even worse. That isn’t a problem that is going to get better without action.
A coherent plan
From the time three new members took office in July, the entire five-member school board has been looking at how to address enrollment growth in both the short and long term. That has included online surveys, gathering new data for improved enrollment projections, convening a task force with members of the public to help develop a plan for buildings and holding multiple public meetings each month while developing a bond proposal.
The plan up for a vote would use bond money to pay for one elementary school outright, as well as an addition to Williston High School, and pay for part of another elementary school. Money from the district’s building fund would go toward desperately needed improvements in both security and accessibility. And the increased revenue from raising the building fund levy would help pay for the cost of the second school over time.
This is a legitimately creative solution in terms of financing the buildings and addressing overcrowding. If enrollment growth continues at the same pace, it would put off the need for new schools until 2024 or 2025.
This plan costs less than the one voters rejected in March and it would add more capacity than that plan, as well.
Out of time, out of options
One of the most common complaints about the bond proposal that we’ve seen is that the state should be paying for new schools. From a moral perspective, we completely agree. The problem is the legislature only has one option for funding new schools — school districts’ building funds, which are supported entirely by property taxes.
That needs to change, and it needs to change soon, but until it does there aren’t any other options. When the legislature starts meeting in just a few days, we hope that is one of the first proposals that gets taken up. Even if it is, though, and even if it passes, it won’t take effect for months. And if we wait months, the opening of a new school will be delayed for at least a year.
That’s at least one more year of increasingly overcrowded schools and aging facilities.
And under one proposal that’s already being discussed, only districts that have already increased their building fund levy from 10 to 20 mills would be eligible for state aid, so future support from the state could hinge on that issue.
Support the schools with two yes votes
The District 1 school board has done a very good job laying out both the need for new schools and the reasons it selected this plan. It has offered up information to the public on its website and been open to questions and concerns.
Raising taxes is never going to be something that has broad support from the public, but this plan balances the costs with the benefits to the community. It is a good plan and we think it deserves the support of the community. All District 1 voters should vote yes on both the bond referendum and on raising the district’s building fund levy. Doing that will ensure high quality education for our rapidly growing community.