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Western legislators, educators discuss Legacy Fund spending

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District 37 Sen. Rich Wardner leads a discussion with region legislators and educators in Watford City Monday on possible education uses for the Legacy Fund. (Brandon L. Summers / The Dickinson Press)

Western North Dakota legislators and superintendents gathered at Watford City's Rough Rider Center Monday to discuss using Legacy Fund dollars to meet educational needs.

"We want to make sure we have everything on the table to consider going forward as we deal with Legacy earnings," District 37 Sen. Rich Wardner said. "We may not be able to do everything you guys are thinking of, but we can pick out the ones that are going to make it."

Wardner anticipated Legacy Fund earnings of $368.1 million for the 2021-23 biennium and $1.13 billion for the 2031-33 biennium.

The figures assume an average per oil barrel price of $48.25.

"That can be up and down, but you've got to have an assumption," Wardner said. "This gives you an idea when we're talking about money."

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Among possibilities for Legacy Fund spending, Wardner suggested school mill rate replacement and a school building fund, as well as career and technical education funding.

"That's for everyone in the state," Wardner said. "We're talking about recruiting workforce in North Dakota. We've got kids coming. Let's train them and keep them here."

Wardner also proposed K-12 behavior health funding.

"They're screwing up the education for the good kids. That doesn't mean separate them, but they've got to be handled separately," he said. "I'm not so sure we shouldn't be looking at in-home intensive treatment for some of these parents. Half the problems are coming from the home."

Property tax replacement for K-12 school funding was also discussed.

Wardner suggested using 20% of Legacy Fund earnings to replace property tax payers of local school districts, which would increase an average 3% yearly.

The total statewide local property tax for 2022-23 is estimated to be $273 million.

"After 10 years of putting 20% of the Legacy Fund earnings to replace property tax dollars, you're almost right back where you started," Wardner said. "If you're a property tax payer, you've got to be pleased by that."

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A proposed low-interest construction fund for schools would have a balance of about $310 million at the end of the 2021-23 biennium.

The goal is to capitalize the fund up to $800 million by 2033.

"If we had $800 million in there and we raised the minimums, I think it would make a difference," Wardner said. "We need to work on that."

State Investment and Improvement Fund dollars could be diverted to support the fund.

"The Legislature relies on SIFF to balance the books at the end of the session," Wardner said. "Our general fund revenue doesn't match our general fund spending. Well, whose fault is that? I just want to remind you why we're over. We took 115 mills away from local property tax, and that equals $1 billion."

Also possible, a school grant fund could help cover 10% of the costs for building a new school, or a one-time grant program for schools in the Bakken region to assist schools in meeting their building needs.

Gary Wilz, Killdeer School District superintendent, advocated for district career and technical education (CTE) training and advanced college credits over funding regional centers.

"I have kids right now who know what their future is," he said. "If we can short fuse the time there and get these young men and women in that workforce pipeline that might be a solution. Why not do some of that career-type training in our CTE arena?"

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Superintendent Sherlock Hirning, Divide County School District, requested support for growing transportation costs. A weighted mileage rate for rural routes, for example, would help, he said.

"If you look at the roads we have to travel and the condition of our buses we have that can't stand up to them, there's no comparison," he said. "Our routes become much longer. Our buses don't hold up. We're constantly trying to maintain them. Our cost is significantly more than districts not dealing with those conditions. There should be some way we can adjust for that."

Daren Kurle, Belfield Public Schools superintendent, said his district needs a new building, but one would cost $18 million.

"We're one of the smallest K-12 school districts — $10 million tax valuation — and to generate a project is going to take a lot," he said. "We have 20 mills (for our) building fund, but we have to use that fund to repair the 80-year-old buildings we have."

He added, "We don't know what route we're going to take."

Superintendent Calvin Dean, South Heart Public School District, advocated for a system where the state builds the schools, like in Wyoming, as some communities are not even able to fund such projects.

"I think we need to think out of the box and in a way where we don't put any extra burden on taxpayers. We have situations were districts are growing rapidly," he said. "If we had some program where state could fund those projects, that would be a key thing."

Shon Hocker, Dickinson Public Schools superintendent, supported the idea of state support, and using the Legacy Fund to support local referendums.

The idea is supported by districts on the eastern side of the state, as well, he said.

"If we can come up with ideas that are beneficial to the majority, or all, I'm happy about that," he said. "The challenge we have in the Bakken area is that premium, which is literally a third. Every estimate we've received has that 30% increase regardless."

He added, "There needs to be a state grant system to support these projects."

District 37 Rep. Mike Lefor supported using state resources to help rural district construct new buildings and meet educational needs.

"We put together oil impact grants years ago for a lot of different entities, and we need to consider that for schools now," he said. "Having statistics for what it would cost per square foot in Fargo and what it would cost in Watford City or Dickinson is information we need to put out there."

He added, "The age of our buildings is a powerful argument."

District 36 Sen. Jay Elkin said the greatest concern he hears are about property taxes.

"With the grant program and the Bakken premium being built in it, our ability to sell it to the east," he said, "because of the additional costs it takes to construct a school out here, I think we can sell that."

District 37 Rep. Vicky Steiner said having a strategic plan is important when it comes to the Legacy Fund.

"A statewide concept is the only way we're going to have enough interest in doing this," she said. "It would have to be a statewide construction fund with priority for rapidly growing schools, because other legislators understand they may have a rapidly growing school at some point and these are the schools that get funded."

Wardner said another caucus would be held next spring, also in Watford City, on the issue of Legacy Fund spending on education.

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Gary Wilz, Killdeer School District, left, joined 13 other area superintendents in Watford City Monday to discuss Legacy Fund spending with Western North Dakota legislators. (Brandon L. Summers / The Dickinson Press)

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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