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By Caroline Downs
Voters in the Lewis & Clark School District narrowly defeated a bond issue to support a proposed $12 million expansion and renovation project for Berthold Public School last month, but district officials are still considering options to meet the need for more space at Berthold.
A special election was called for January 9th, with voters asked to approve or reject the bond issue, as well as to approve or reject an increase in the district’s debt limit.
Lewis & Clark School District superintendent Brian Nelson was impressed with the turnout of 779 patrons to vote across five precincts in the district. Voters in the Berthold and Carpio precincts overwhelmingly supported the two issues, while the majority of voters in the Makoti, Ryder and Plaza districts rejected them. The election tallied 375 votes in favor of the bond issue, with 403 votes against it, and 360 votes to raise the school’s limit of indebtedness, with 416 votes opposed.
“I’d like to thank our patrons in Berthold and Carpio,” Nelson said. “They heard what we were saying, and not only did they get it, they embraced it. I really do thank all those people who came out in full force to support us.”
Like Nelson, board president Mike Lautenschlager appreciated the voter turnout districtwide and support the two questions did receive. “Before the election, I would say to people, ‘I can’t tell you how to vote, but if you go and vote, that makes my job easier,’” he said. “Now, we’re going to have to do some planning. Our problem is not going away.”
Berthold’s school enrollment for grades kindergarten through 12, now standing at approximately 270 students after 29 new students arrived last fall, is expected to increase given the community’s attractive location along U.S. Highway 2 west of Minot on the way to drilling sites in western North Dakota’s Bakken oilfield. In fact, Five Stone Development has proposed a major housing development east of Berthold, including up to 300 homes and some commercial and industrial properties, which would more than double the size of the community. Those developers met with the Berthold City Council, Berthold Township Board and Berthold Planning/Zoning Committee Monday night to advance the proposal.
In the meantime, Lewis & Clark School District officials have to deal with a large number of students in a small space. “We’re going to continue the way we are this year,” Nelson said. He preferred to add permanent classroom, lunchroom and gymnasium space, as proposed in the original building project, rather than spend the money on portable classrooms.
The bond issue could be presented to voters again in June, but Lautenschlager and Nelson both noted other factors could influence the school board’s decision to do so. One is the annexation petition under consideration that requested 125 sections of land in the Ryder area be annexed to the Max School District. Another will be the outcome of the statewide vote in June on Measure 2 to eliminate property taxes in North Dakota.
“If that passes,” Lautenschlager said, “none of what we do matters, and the bond issue will be a gray area.”
Nelson expressed similar concerns about the impact of Measure 2 because school districts rely on property taxes for a significant portion of their annual budgets. If Measure 2 passed, as presented, the state’s budget would have to supplement revenue now collected by school districts, townships, counties and cities through property taxes. “The state doesn’t have that much money,” Nelson said. “We’re already seeing a reduction of 75 mills to our taxpayers through the state.”
Lautenschlager said circumstances like these prevented the Berthold School building project from being a black and white issue for the school board. “There are a lot of things to weigh before making any decisions right now,” he said.
According to Nelson, the board will announce a special session to review the situation at Berthold Public School sometime before the regular board meeting scheduled for February 13th.
“We’ll have a discussion at these next couple of board meetings,” said Lautenschlager. “We have to have a plan of action.”