School officials hope for financial help with building

School officials don’t think there’s any legal way to get the Board of University and School Lands to help pay for new school construction, but they’re going to check to make sure.

Minot Public Schools business manager Scott Moum said Wednesday that the district will ask local legislators to seek an opinion on the matter from North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. Legally, the school district is not allowed to seek an opinion directly. Moum said the attorney general’s office has not previously issued an opinion on this topic.

Minot voters will be asked to approve a $125 million bond issue on Dec. 10 that would pay for new school construction that supporters say is needed to address overcrowding and expected future growth in the school district.

Opponents of the bond issue, including Robert Hale, who wrote a letter to The Minot Daily News on Sept. 1, have countered by saying that the district should seek the funding from the Land Board, which administers school trust lands in the state.

Lance Gaebe, land commissioner for the North Dakota Department of Trust Lands, said that, under the state constitution, the funds distributed during a biennium from the permanent trust funds are to be 10 percent of the five-year average value of trust assets, excluding the value of lands and minerals. That represents roughly 5 percent each year. To change that state of affairs would require that the state constitution be altered and federal law be changed, said Gaebe. The money from the trust that is distributed to K-12 schools provides about 5 percent of the cost of educating each public school student in the state; other state funding for education comes from other areas.The primary responsibility of the Land Board and the North Dakota Department of Trust Lands is to manage the Common Schools Trust Fund and 12 other permanent educational trust funds that are governed by Article IX of the North Dakota Constitution, said Gaebe.

These trust funds were established at statehood when the Federal Government granted 3.2 million acres of land to the state “for the support of common schools” and other public institutions. 700,000 surface acres and 1.7 million mineral acres remain as income producing assets of the trusts.

Gaebe said distributions from the school trust lands fund have increased each year, as the principal has grown along with other revenue in the state. During the last biennium, $92,514,000 was distributed from the fund to schools; this biennium it is $130,326,000. Distributions from the trust funds to beneficiaries will be up 41 percent over distributions in the current biennium, said Gaebe.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler, who sits on the Land Board along with Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Secretary of State Al Jaeger, State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt, and Stenehjem, said Tuesday that she has received inquiries from people in the Minot area about the issue as well. After research, she also determined there is no legal way for the Land Board to provide funding for the school construction.

She said the 2013 Legislature did authorize low-interest construction loans that could be used for that purpose by school districts like Minot.

If passed by Minot voters on Dec 10, the $125 million school bond issue would raise funding to build a new 550 student elementary school on 10 acres of land already owned by the district at the corner of 37th Avenue and 13th Street Southeast, the purchase of land in north Minot and construction of a second 9-12 high school, converting Central Campus into a fourth middle school for the school district, renovating Magic City Campus so it could accommodate grades 9-12, additions as needed at other elementaries and safety and security measures, such as relocating school offices closer to front entrances and adding more video cameras at schools. If approved, the bond issue would raise the school district mill levy by 51 mills. The owner of a $200,000 home in Minot could expect to pay an additional $456 per year. Voters are also being asked to increase the school district’s debt by an additional 5 percent beyond the current 5 percent debt limit set by the state constitution.