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By Caroline Downs
The Lewis & Clark School District could shrink by approximately 125 sections of land, if that property is annexed to the Max School District.
A group of landowners from townships in southern Ward and northern McLean counties submitted a petition to Ward County Superintendent Jodi Johnson on December 7th, requesting annexation of the property from the Lewis & Clark School District No. 161 to the Max School District No. 50.
The annexation request features about 80,000 acres located in 10 different townships, including Linton, Vang, Orlien, Anna, Rice Lake, Hiddenwood, Ryder and Cameron in Ward County and Gate and Blue Hill in McLean County. North Dakota Century Code requires that the property described in the annexation request be contiguous to the school districts involved.
The Lewis & Clark district covers an 880-square mile area across Ward, McLean, Mountrail and Renville counties.
The petition was submitted by 216 property owners in those townships, and Johnson is now working to verify the signatures as well as determine if those signatures represent at least two-thirds of the qualified voters residing on the property listed for annexation.
As the county superintendent, Johnson does not rule on the annexation request, but prepares information for a hearing on the request by a county committee. Her responsibilities include researching the value of each tract of land included within the petition, work that could continue into next week, given the number of property owners involved.
“It’s hard to speculate on the impact when you take that mass of land out of the school district,” she said.
The petition was submitted to Johnson by Lee and Julie Brandvold on December 7th, just over a month before the special election scheduled for January 9, 2012, in the Lewis & Clark School District regarding a $12 million bond issue for proposed renovations and additions at Berthold Public School. Johnson said the election will go forward as scheduled. “There will be no way to hold the county committee meeting prior to the election,” she said.
According to Century Code, the petition must identify one child who lives on the property to be annexed and whose parent has stated an intention to send that child to a public school in the district receiving the property, if the annexation is approved.
The public hearing for the request will be held at the Ward County Courthouse in Minot, but Johnson said no date has been scheduled yet because she was still preparing information for committee members. The meeting date will be announced and posted later, and persons who wish to testify in favor of or against the annexation request can do so.
If the county committee approves the petition request, the matter will be heard by the State Board of Education for final approval.
If the county committee denies the petition request, the decision may be appealed to the state board.
Johnson noted the State Board of Education usually meets the third Monday of each month, but she did not know when they would discuss the petition request.
Annexation request follows
closure of Ryder school,
State Supreme Court ruling
“We understand they want to annex because their kids are going to school in Max,” said Brian Nelson, superintendent of the Lewis & Clark School District. “But they can open enroll [their children] without annexing their property, and some have chosen to do so. At this time, some families who live two, three or four miles from Makoti have chosen to send their kids to Max.”
Nelson explained that the annexation may have been submitted in response to an opinion filed September 15, 2011, by the North Dakota Sate Supreme Court in the case of Lee Brandvold, Steve Bigelow, Dwight Johnson, Nikki Johansen and Bruce Peterson (the Ryder Group) vs. Lewis and Clark Public School District #161.
In the opinion, the State Supreme Court justices upheld a decision by Ward County District Court that effectively dismissed the lawsuit, in which the Ryder Group alleged the reorganization process that resulted in the Lewis & Clark School District was tainted by fraud.
The Lewis & Clark district was formed after voters in the old Berthold, North Shore (Ryder-Makoti) and Plaza districts approved consolidation in 2002. According to Liz Huus, one of the business managers for the Lewis & Clark district, minutes from a North Shore school board meeting following the election listed 130 “yes” votes in the Makoti precinct, with 20 “no” votes. The Ryder precinct turned in 48 “yes” votes and 41 “no” votes for reorganization of the school districts.
At the Plaza precinct, 146 “yes” ballots were cast, with 2 “no” votes. In the Berthold precinct, 167 “yes” votes were tallied along with 35 “no” votes.
The new district began operations in the 2003-2004 school year with Berthold Public School, North Shore High School, Plaza Elementary School and Ryder Elementary School. The school board consisted of seven members, with two from each of the former districts and one at-large member. Brandvold was elected to that school board.
One condition agreed upon for the new district was that all school buildings would remain open for at least five years. The district operated all four schools for seven years and closed Ryder’s facility after the 2009-2010 school year.
District superintendent Nelson explained the school board viewed the closure as way to save expenses without reducing services. “The enrollment there had dropped from 60 to 30 students during those seven years,” he said, “and with two buildings to serve at that end of the district instead of three, we were hoping our teachers for music, physical education and title programs wouldn’t have to spend so much time on the road.”
He noted that if the Ryder school had remained open that year, the kindergarten teachers in Ryder and Plaza would each have had two students in class. “We didn’t want to duplicate those kind of services to kids,” he said.
The district also saved money in administrative and custodial costs, as well as utility expenses. “Now we run three lunch programs in the district instead of four,” Nelson added, “and nobody has lost any services.”
Brandvold filed a petition in district court in February 2010, alleging the election for the reorganization process was fraudulent because certain outstanding debts on lease-purchase transactions owed by the former Berthold Public School were not disclosed. The State Supreme Court agreed with the district court’s dismissal of the petition, saying that the fact the election took place to reorganize the district rendered the whole controversy moot.
The State Supreme Court also noted that seeking a revote on a public election held more than six years before the petition was filed would be untimely, impractical and unfair.
Nelson said the Lewis & Clark School District was not offering an official opinion on the annexation request yet. “There are a lot of unknowns to find out before we take a position on anything,” he said. “We would like to see how much land is involved and what the taxable valuation is, and we would like to see how many kids are involved.”
For the 2011-2012 school year, total Lewis & Clark district enrollment, as of September 15, 2011, was 378 students.
The Berthold Public School enrolls 278 kids with addresses from Berthold, Carpio and Plaza. The North Shore High School serves 53 students in grades 7 through 12, and 47 kids are enrolled at Plaza Elementary School in grades kindergarten through 6. Students who attend those two schools list Makoti, Plaza and Ryder home addresses.
According to school records, 15 students open-enroll into the Lewis & Clark School District, while 59 open-enroll out of the district into Max, Garrison, Minot, Glenburn, Kenmare, Stanley and South Prairie schools. Nelson noted that parents make the choice to open-enroll their children for a variety of reasons, including opportunities for course offerings and proximity to a school.
“We have a big district, and some people feel they want to go to a school in another district that’s actually closer,” he said. “Some kids have left the Berthold school for Minot because they wanted more course offerings.”
He explained that any children living in the district could attend any of the schools in the district. “We want our patrons to realize that for kids in the Lewis & Clark district, they have a choice of two high schools,” he said.
When members of the county committee hear the annexation request, they will consider a variety of evidence, according to Century Code, including the value and amount of property held by each affected district; the changes in taxable valuation under the proposed annexation; the number of students and general population of each district; the location, condition and grade levels offered by each school in the district; the educational needs of the communities in each district; potential savings in transportation and administrative costs; and the potential to equalize or increase the educational opportunities for students in each affected district. School district patrons and other members of the public may testify about these and other factors relevant to the petition.
Lee and Julie Brandvold could not be reached for comment about the annexation petition.
Johnson said as Ward County Superintendent, it is not her role to give opinions about the annexation request. However, she does want taxpayers in the school districts involved to be aware of the facts of the proposed annexation. “I’m open to anyone calling and asking questions,” she said.
Johnson can be reached at 701-857-6495.
Superintendent Nelson can be contacted for more information about the Lewis & Clark School District at 701-453-3484.