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Board to consider special request for $11 million for Watford City school infrastructure

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BISMARCK – Watford City leaders are asking the state Land Board to break routine and speed up grant dollars to help pay for infrastructure for a $50 million high school approved by voters last week.

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The Department of Trust Lands is recommending approval of the city’s special request for $11 million in emergency funds from the state’s Oil and Gas Impact Grant Fund.

“While many areas of the west are impacted by energy activity, few could argue that the specific challenges faced in Watford City are acute,” department Commissioner Lance Gaebe wrote in his recommendation to the board, officially known as the Board of University and Trust Lands.

Board members will consider the request at their meeting Monday.

Watford City officials have been critical of the state for not returning a greater share of oil and gas tax revenue to the area in the heart of western North Dakota’s oil boom.

State lawmakers set aside $240 million for energy impact grants to schools, cities, airports, sheriffs and other political subdivisions during the 2013-2015 biennium.

The board has awarded or pledged nearly $143 million since July.

Of that amount, Watford City received $10 million of the $190 million it requested, while the McKenzie County School District was awarded $3.17 million for safety improvements, classroom remodeling and site preparation for the new school. Grant recipients are reimbursed for their expenses.

In a letter to the board this week, Watford City Mayor Brent Sanford and school district Superintendent Steve Holen noted that activity in McKenzie County accounted for more than 20 percent of the state’s total oil and gas tax revenues.

“As we look for new and innovative ways to keep up with the development, we are presented with an equal amount of challenges that we are unable to handle on our own,” they wrote.

The district’s student enrollment has doubled in the past three years, and district voters overwhelmingly approved a $27 million bond referendum on March 11 to help finance a new high school that will accommodate 800 students in grades 7-12.

Engineers estimate the cost of installing the roads, water, sewer and other infrastructure needed to support the new school at $23.3 million.  

Gaebe is recommending that the board approve an $8 million infrastructure grant for Watford City from the impact fund’s unallocated 2014 contingency fund, which currently contains $10.1 million.

In a phone interview Friday, Sanford said the city and school district decided to seek the contingency dollars rather than wait for the next grant round in July so that construction could begin as soon as possible, adding, “Time is of the essence.”

“The state leadership has been really open to considering it, because our avalanche of kids coming our way is actually a total oil-impact emergency that’s brought upon us, and we’re going to be out of room during the school year next year,” he said.

Gaebe also recommends that the board commit to an additional $3 million for the school district in fiscal year 2015 for construction-related infrastructure. That money would come from $12.5 million targeted for K-12 schools in 2015 from the impact fund.

Gaebe said Friday that the land board has made special grant awards in the past, including $3 million in 2012 for temporary portable classrooms in Williston. The $8 million grant would among the largest awarded outside of the normal grant schedule, he said.

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Mike Nowatzki
Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.
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