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Overcrowding, high cost-of-living issues bring Burgum to the table for western North Dakota schools

Gov. Doug Burgum speaks with the school district superintendents and school board presidents from Williams County during a meeting Monday, Aug. 12, in Williston. Jamie Kelly / Williston Herald

WILLISTON, N.D. — Finding a solution to overcrowding in schools and explosive enrollment growth is important not just to the residents of Williams County, but to the entire state.

Gov. Doug Burgum told a group of school officials Monday, Aug. 12, that a recent visit to look at the petrochemical industry in Edmonton, Alberta, showed the importance of good schools to attracting capital investment.

Monday’s meeting brought together the superintendents and school board presidents from all six Williams County school districts to talk about how the state and Williams County could help gather information to come up with a solution. All six districts have seen increasing enrollment and two of them saw failed attempts to pass bonds to pay for new schools.

On Monday, the focus was on topics that a proposed countywide study by Williams County could look into.

The key, Burgum said, was local control and local collaboration.

“I believe we can come up with a great solution,” he said.

Some of the concerns brought up by school officials would be familiar to anyone working or living in the western part of the state.

In both District 1 and District 8, the cost of living has cut into the districts’ ability to recruit teachers. In District 8, there are still eight open teacher positions, and two people had to turn down jobs because of the high cost and limited availability of day care.

In District 1, several teachers had to turn down contracts because of the high cost of living in general.

The county’s other four districts were all at full staffing, but some credited that to things like district-owned housing.

“If we didn’t have that, we would have problems keeping people,” Matt Schriver, superintendent for Eight Mile Public School District No. 6 in Trenton, said.

Several issue were ones that concerned District 1 and District 8 during their attempts to pass school bonds. One was the right location for new schools.

Joanna Baltes, school board president for District 1, said the county’s study could look at where new schools would do the most good.

“It would be helpful to know where we should put schools,” she said.

Rob Turner, superintendent for District 8, agreed, and said it would be useful for districts to share their facilities master plan.

Another issue was the questions of how districts could share capital costs. When students from District 8, which doesn’t have a high school, attend school in other districts, District 8 pays tuition.

That money has to be used for operation, though, and can’t be used to help pay for a new school.

Several districts wondered if there were ways to change that. Baltes also asked about a joint taxation district, where two districts would together levy property tax to pay for a new building.

The issue of payment for capital projects has come up in discussions between District 1 and District 8. Most of District 8’s high school-age students attend Williston High School, which is already overcrowded.

In January, after the first failed attempt to pass a bond to pay for two new elementary schools and an addition to WHS, District 1 board discussed no longer accepting District 8 students in the future.

Under state law, when a school district doesn’t have a high school, neighboring districts must educate those students. District 1 board members questioned whether that is the case when a building is overcrowded.

The question of whether District 1 might not be able to take District 8 students came up Monday, as well. Benjamin Schafer, district superintendent for Nesson Public School District No. 2 in Ray said such a move would affect Ray and Grenora, both of which have open enrollment, more than most.

Baltes said because of a grant from Williams County and donations from the public, District 1 is hoping to build a 400-student Innovation Academy in the disused Hagan Pool Building near Bakken Middle School. That would ease some enrollment pressure.

The problem is that enrollment continues to grow at the high school, which opened in 2016 with a capacity of 1,200 students. It was already over capacity at the end of last year.

“No one relishes the thought of closing enrollment to high school students in our area,” she said.