Wolf Point Herald

Froid, Poplar School Districts Disagree On Land Acquisition

The Froid and Poplar school districts met in the Roosevelt County courthouse Thursday, Aug. 9, over a land acquisition dispute initiated by the Froid school district.

 

The land in question is a chunk in the northeast corner of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation that includes 10 to 20 households. The land covers approximately 11 elementary school students. Nine of these students attend Froid Public School and two attend Poplar Elementary School. The land acquisition request encompasses around 127,000 acres, which is a major aspect of the dispute between the districts.

Froid argued that the majority of the students in the district attend Froid schools already and that Froid is much closer to than Poplar Elementary School.

Poplar argued that Froid was asking for more land that is necessary to cover the homes in question and that it would be a detriment to their taxable land value.

Jayne Mitchell, Dawson County Superintendent of Schools, sat in for Roosevelt County Superintendent of Schools Jeri Toavs as a unbiased party. Mitchell presided over the hearing that will decide the ultimate fate of the land in question.

Representing Froid School District was Jeff Weldon, a Billings attorney, and representing Poplar School District was Elizabeth Varela, a Billings attorney. Both attorneys agreed to request the ability to submit closing statements via writing rather than traditional spoken delivery. Mitchell agreed and allowed this, meaning that closing statements were not given at this hearing.

Mitchell made it clear that because Froid was petitioner the burden of proof would be on them as to why this transfer should take place. Everyone who spoke during the hearing was placed under oath.

Weldon, in the opening statement for Froid, stated that a hearing such as this one is a “rare occasion” and that he could only think of two cases since the year 2000. Weldon stated that the petition filed by Froid in November 2017 aims to prove the educational opportunities, transportation capabilities and economic viability of this land transfer. He suggested that if he can provide evidence that no burden would be placed on either district then the transfer should occur. Weldon also stated, for the record, that there is no school within three miles of the transfer area.

Varela, in Poplar’s opening statement, said that many of the facts in this case won’t be disputed. However, Varela claimed that the benefit of the transfer is disproportional to Froid. Varela stated that the court should consider the educational opportunities in the receiving and transferring district. She also stated that any decrease in funding to the transferring district is going to have a negative impact on that district.

“The evidence will show that Froid’s request is unreasonable,” stated Varela.

Varela said that Poplar’s population would be negatively impacted by the transfer and that the students in the transfer area are already accommodated for.

Froid Argument
The first witness for Froid was Marvin Qualley, a lifelong resident of the transfer area. Qualley stated that he had been working on this transfer since 1995. He stated that in the transfer area there are 11 students — nine who attend Froid and two who attend Poplar. Qualley also stated that all high school-age students in the transfer area attend school in Froid.

Qualley argued that if the area were transferred it would allow parents of students in the area to serve on the elementary school board in Froid and they would pay their taxes to the district where their students actually attend school. He stated that the area’s history with attending Froid school dates back to the 1950s and ‘60s when Poplar denied that area attendance and transportation to their district school. It was also indicated that Poplar closed the area’s one-room schoolhouse in 1954 when it denied the area transportation. Qualley said that many residents moved and transferred students to the Froid area. No physical evidence was provided to support this claim, but many are old enough to remember it.

Qualley stated that the area in question is about 50 minutes from Poplar and only about 20 minutes from Froid. He argued “the boundary is closer to Froid that Poplar.” He also stated that Poplar has graduated seven students from the area since 1995 and that Froid has graduated 25 students during the same time frame.

“The last Poplar graduate from this area was 12 years ago,” claimed Qualley. “Poplar shouldn’t collect taxes on people they don’t serve.”

Finally, Qualley stated that he personally would love to vote and run for the school board in the Froid district, but he has never been allowed to do so because his residence is in the Poplar School District.

Froid’s second witness was Ken Taylor, superintendent of Froid School District. Taylor has been in education for 13 years and has been in his current position for three years. Taylor largely presented numbers for each district in an effort to prove that no additional financial or educational burden would be placed on the Poplar School District.

Taylor stated that Froid currently has an eight-to-one student/teacher ratio and Poplar has a 13-to-one student/teacher ratio. He stated that, because the students in the area are few in number and most of them already attend the school of their choice, class size would not be impacted and thus is not a factor.

Taylor claimed both schools spend more per student than average. He also argued that Poplar would not lose money because this is a land transfer and that money allocated based on student count would not change.

“Poplar would not lose a single penny from its general fund budget,” stated Taylor. “Demographics would remain unchanged for both schools.”

According to Taylor, Poplar would have to increase their mills by approximately 20 mills to generate the same amount of money if the transfer were to go through. Taylor stated that, according to his math, this would increase cost to Poplar taxpayers by about $24 per year for a $100,000 home. He also argued that Poplar School District, being located on a reservation, receives significantly more Impact Aid funding than Froid. This is another source of funding that would remain unchanged, according to Taylor. He said Froid receives about $7,000 in Impact Aid funding on average while Poplar receives somewhere around $3 million.

When questioned by Valera, Taylor confirmed that individuals in the subject area are already able to vote and pay taxes to the Froid High School District, just not the elementary one. It was also stated that Froid Elementary School District would increase twofold in taxable value and the amount residents pay in taxes would decrease.

Valera stated that the general fund isn’t the only fund impacted. Taylor agreed, but stated that the general fund is the most significant fund.

Taylor continued by stating other issues a transfer might resolve. He said that Froid currently doesn’t have the option to consolidate into a K-12 district, even if it does not serve the district’s best interests. Taylor stated that each year he has to send a request to Poplar to pick up the students in the subject area. Although, Taylor stated that in his duration as superintendent he has not been denied pick-up in their district. However, it was stated by Weldon that the year prior to Taylor becoming superintendent Poplar did decline Froid permission to pick up students in the transfer area.

Valera stated that taxpayer preference is not something that the superintendent can consider in this case. Taylor agreed that, no, in this case she cannot. Valera also questioned the legitimacy of a petition presented by Taylor, which Taylor rebutted was drafted by those that live in the transfer area.

Valera also argued that the land in question accounted for approximately 15 percent of Poplar’s total taxable land value.

Poplar Argument

The first witness that Poplar called on was Debra McGowan, Poplar School Board trustee for four years and teacher in the district for 29 years. McGowan said that, to her knowledge, during her four years with the board they have always approved the transportation agreement with Froid.

“We don’t want to impede the choices those parents have made,” said McGowan.

She also argued that the 11 students are in a small part of the area requested for transfer and that Froid is requesting much more land than necessary.
McGowan also stated that there would be a tax burden that no person in the Poplar district is in favor of.

Weldon asked her how this would negatively impact the district. McGowan replied that it would be a burden to the taxpayers. “But not to the students?,” asked Weldon. McGowan said “no.” 

Weldon asked McGowan how much of a burden $25 per year could really be to taxpayers. McGowan claimed that it is a significant burden and when pressed estimated that it would be a significant burden to approximately 50 percent of taxpayers.

Poplar’s second witness was Dan Schmidt, new superintendent of Poplar School District since July 1.

Schmidt claimed that there would be a burden to taxpayers “not necessarily in the amount collected but in the percent collected.” He continued by stating that a 27 percent increase in taxes is a burden regardless of amount. He also stated that the transportation and bus deprecation funds are impacted by taxable value and that taxpayers would carry that burden.

Schmidt also claimed that, to his knowledge, the last denial of a transportation agreement with Froid was when a bus from Froid stopped in the Poplar district without permission the previous year. He also agreed with McGowan that the transfer area is larger than necessary to accommodate the students in question.

When questioned by Weldon, Schmidt stated that $25 per year is not a significant amount.

Public Comments

After both Froid and Poplar called their witnesses to the stand, Mitchell allowed the public to comment on the matter as they saw fit. All members of the public were put under oath prior to commenting on the possibility of the land transfer. There were supporters of both sides of the argument. However, the large majority of the public were there to support Poplar keeping the land in question inside their district.

Linda Labatte, a Froid resident and trustee on the school board there, spoke in support of the land acquisition. She stated that, when the petition by the residents of the subject area was brought to the school board in March 2017, they actively took a stance to support it. Labatte stated that a big part of the petition was the residents in the subject are wanting to vote and participate in elections and board matters for Froid elementary.

Janessa Parenteau, principal of Froid Public School, said that she lives in the subject area and that she is approximately 100 yards from the district line. Her children will be fourth generation Froid students and she stated that the distance from her house to Froid is much shorter than to Poplar. Parenteau said her family has never been able to run for the Froid School board because they cannot vote on elementary matters.

Robert Smith, parent of Froid students and bus driver for the district, spoke briefly stating that he is the bus driver for the subject area and he supports the transfer.

Jestin Dupree, Poplar School board member and Fort Peck Tribal Executive Board member, was very critical of Froid in his opposition to the transfer. He claimed that it was obvious that the transfer wasn’t about kids and that it was a land grab. Dupree said numerous times, “The tribes were never consulted about this.” He also questioned how an off-reservation community is going to dictate reservation land. This would result in Mitchell asking both legal teams to investigate whether or not the tribal government could impact the outcome.
Dupree stated that most of the subject area is land owned by the Fort Peck Tribes.

Dupree also presented a petition with signatures from 357 Poplar residents opposing the transfer. The relevancy of the petition being allowed into evidence was questioned as none of the signatures were made under oath.

Frank Gourneau Jr. spoke briefly in opposition of the transfer and about the number of students in the Poplar School District and the struggles the district faces. He stated that, due to the struggles of the area, the district needs every penny it can get. He also stated that Froid’s attempt to acquire the subject area was “stealing money from the students of the Poplar district” and he referred to those students as “the stockholders of the Fort Peck Tribes.”

Ken Norgaard, 18-year veteran of the Poplar School board, brought hard facts to the argument against Froid and cleared up the questions behind transportation disputes. Norgaard stated that Froid currently spends $27,000 per student in their district which is $13,000 over the state average of $15,000.

Norgaard said that any tax is too much tax against the Poplar district.

“Poplar taxpayers should not have to take on the burden,” stated Norgaard. He stated that residents in Poplar are already taxed on everything else and that only about 60 percent of Poplar residents pay taxes.

“This is a land grab. It’s not about students,” said Norgaard. He added that the only time Froid was ever denied transportation into the Poplar district was when the Froid bus pushed limits going further than necessary where access was not granted. Norgaard also claimed this has only happened once in the 18 years he served on the school board.

Greg Norgaard, transportation director for the Poplar district, further elaborated by stating that he was the bus driver the day he spotted the Froid bus beyond the limits of what was granted via the transportation agreement. He also stated that Froid had already been warned prior to this incident.

Denver Atkinson, Poplar district resident, stated that about 96 percent of the students in Poplar are Native American. He said that poverty is off the charts with people suffering from drug and alcohol addiction. He stated that often you have grandparents raising children while struggling to keep themselves afloat. Atkinson said that the kids in Poplar district are being robbed.

Lane Dehner, Poplar School board, said that he agrees this is about land and not about kids

“You’d be hard pressed in this community to find a farmer that would give up even a single acre of land. They want us to give up way more than that,” said Dehner. He stated as a school board member he cannot sit by and allow this to happen.

Conclusion

At the conclusion of the hearing, it was stated by the court stenographer that it would take approximately seven days for the report to be prepared. Mitchell requested that within 20 days both parties would construct their closing arguments and briefs on each other’s closing statements.

Mitchell also requested that it be addressed as to whether or not tribal land being involved could impact this transfer. Both parties are to report back and a decision should be made prior to the end of August.