Everywhere you look in southwest North Dakota these days, school districts are growing, talking about expansion or looking into building completely new facilities.
Dickinson’s leaders support building a new middle school less than a year after opening a new elementary school. South Heart and Belfield are weighing their options for new facilities separately, or even the possibility — however slim it may be — of a centralized school and a combined district. New England is almost finished with an expansion to school building, complete with a modern library.
Now, the Mott-Regent School District wants in. The district — which is large, encompassing east and central Hettinger County, and parts of southern Stark and northern Adams counties — has some of the oldest facilities in the area, all of which are in Mott. Its elementary school was built in 1929 and the high school in 1935 with the latest expansion coming in 1964. The newest part of the building is 50 years old. These schools were designed for students who sat in connected desks and only used pencils and paper, not students who work on tablets and are connected through the cloud.
On Tuesday, May 20, district residents will vote on a bond referendum that would raise the district’s mill levy, potentially securing $14.5 million and raising the district’s debt limit in an effort to build a new school on the east edge of Mott, near the football field, golf course and county fairgrounds — about a halfmile or more away from most residences and certainly not within walking distance for younger students. The plans even call for a new gymnasium, something the town has needed for a while as it holds athletic events at the aging National Guard Armory.
A 60 percent majority vote is needed for the referendum to pass and, as Superintendent Myron Schweitzer told The Press earlier this week, it’s going to be close.
Now, building a new school in Mott is a bold plan. But is it really what the district needs?
Here’s the problem: Unlike the aforementioned districts, Mott-Regent isn’t really growing.
In fact, it has 73 fewer students than when the school districts combined in 2001. There’s also no oil development in Hettinger County.
While both Mott-Regent and New England — the county’s only two school districts — have seen a small student population increase in the past two years, much of that is attributed to a handful of families associated with the oilfield and oilfield service industries who don’t want to deal with the high cost of living in Dickinson and beyond. So, it’s far too early to tell if growth in either school is sustainable.
With Mott-Regent’s impending vote only 10 days away, people on both sides of the debate are speaking their mind.
The school board and proponents have said their peace. A story about their views on why a new school is needed was the centerpiece feature of our March 9 Progress section.
Lately, the loudest voices in the debate have come from people who don’t feel a new school should be built. A website (www.mottregent.com) and pamphlet mailed to school district residents, both put together by the group North Dakota Watchdog Network after some sizeable donations from school district residents and property owners, have ratcheted up the tension in these two small towns.
Both sides of the debate have strong arguments.
Bill Gion, chair of the Mott-Regent school board, invoked the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut and something potentially similar happening at his school because of its current lack of security and antiquated setup.
Ben Auch, a member of the Mott-Regent new school committee and the Southwest Director of the North Dakota School Board Association, has stated in documents presented to community members “What will it cost the patrons if we do not build a new school?”
Documents provided by the new school committee at a meeting in Regent on Thursday showed data from similar-sized districts in Minnesota where new schools were built and student test scores greatly improved.
Ray Kilzer, a Mott resident and vocal opponent of the project, told The Press earlier this week that while he feels Mott does need to replace its elementary school and feels there are “more reasonable solutions acceptable to more people in the community.”
Bill Oberlander Jr. of Mott said in a letter to the editor to The Herald newspaper and Eido Connect that he’s in favor of keeping taxes low to attract more people to the school district rather than raising them for a new school to house a stagnant, at best, student population.
There’s no arguing that Mott-Regent’s schools needs improvements and modernizations.
But with only 230 kids in the district and no oil development in the county whatsoever — or any in the foreseeable future, according to just about anyone you talk to in the industry — is it really the time for a sizeable chunk of Hettinger County citizens to vote on building a new school and increasing their taxes?
No. Be patient. Wait and see if there is sustainable growth, and don’t stop weighing the cost of building a new school versus improving the old ones. If there’s growth in both the community and student populations, then forge ahead. If not, don’t ask for money that doesn’t need to be spent.