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Schools in oil patch running out of classroom space

By   /   April 19, 2012  /   No Comments

Watford City High School Principal Jay Diede points them out as he walks down the hallways bustling with students: “She’s new, he’s new, new, new, he’s new.”

The new students are hard to distinguish from their native counterparts as they joke and mingle during their lunch break, but their increasing presence has the McKenzie County School District scrambling to provide adequate staffing, bussing and facilities.

“Last week I think we had eight new students come in,” Diede said late last year as he gave a tour of the high school.

(Photo by Christi Stonecipher) Students walk the hallways between classes at Watford City High School. Enrollment in the district has risen by about 100 students since the school year began, and far more are expected next year.

The same thing is happening in Williston’s public schools, which are trying to convince the Federal Emergency Management Agency to loan them some of the trailers that were placed in Minot after this year’s flood. The district is expecting 1,200 new students next year.

There are comparable stories all across North Dakota’s oil patch, especially in small school districts such as Tioga, Ray and Crosby that have never had to consider large facilities or multiple schools.

“It’s a sea change,” said Dakota Draper, the president of the North Dakota Education Association. “These small school districts have traditionally struggled with declining enrollment, and some still do, but many of them are dealing with the opposite – exploding enrollment. And they’re trying to keep up with the new reality.”

More students means more funding, which is generally distributed based on a per-pupil formula. Schools also get some money from oil-impact grants and from oil extraction taxes. But those funding mechanisms are lagging behind the rate of enrollment growth, according to school leaders across the state.

The state bases its per-pupil funding on enrollment totals from the previous year, which traditionally has worked because enrollment remained flat – or dropped – in the vast majority of school districts across the state. But now, the formula leaves growing districts in the lurch as they struggle with hundreds of new students each year.

Changes in state law also limits the money available to schools. In 2009, the Legislature capped the amount of money school districts can receive in the form of oil-impact grants, as a response to concerns that local governments needed more money for roads and other infrastructure.

The first $350,000 of oil-impact funding goes directly to the schools, but only 75 percent of the next $350,000 is available for schools. The percentage continues to decrease for subsequent amounts until the remainder all flows into an infrastructure fund managed by the county.

Then, last year the Legislature disbanded the Governor’s Commission on Education Improvement in an effort to take back more control over the education-funding process. The commission formed in 2006 to develop new ways to pay for public schools after a lawsuit was filed that challenged the existing formula.

“That commission was a real commitment to meaningful, long-term changes, and we need that long-term planning,” said Greg Burns, director of the North Dakota Education Association. “But no matter what lawmakers ultimately decide to do, I believe education funding will dominate the next legislative session.”

Jerry Coleman, director of school finance at the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, said schools are going to cost the state a lot more money next year, even if no changes are made to the existing system.

“Legislators might have some sticker shock over the next biennium with enrollment growth in some of these districts,” he said. “It’s going to cost $25 million more just to do what we’ve been doing.”

In the meantime, districts are struggling to maintain high-quality education standards. They are hiring more teachers, adding portables and asking local voters to approve higher property taxes to construct new schools. And while officials sharpen their pencils and try to plan for unknowns, the students keep coming.

At Watford City Elementary School, total enrollment went from 270 in the fall of 2010 to 417 in the fall of 2011. And enrollment is expected to reach 450 or 500 by the end of this school year.

“Even simple things, like lunch – how do we get all those kids through our one small lunch room – are harder,” says Sherry Lervick, the principal at Watford City Elementary.

Watford City High School doesn’t have the same size constraints as the elementary school. The facility was built in 1985 to handle 550 students, based on the enrollment numbers of the first oil boom. At that time, the percentage of oil tax revenue that went to affected school districts was not capped and the school board was able to pay for the building with cash on hand.

Still, the high school has seen about 100 new students this year alone, which means more teachers were needed. So far, the district has hired six new teachers in an effort to keep class sizes down.

Then there’s bussing. The Watford City school district covers 1,679 square miles and two time zones. McKenzie County added seven new buses with money from an infrastructure grant to bring its fleet to 31 busses and expects to submit a request for more this year. Four of the district’s bus routes are more than 80 miles long.

“We have families moving into farmsteads that haven’t been inhabited in 20-some years calling and wondering when the bus will come,” District Superintendent Steven Holen said.

The limiting factor at the moment is housing, which is clear driving past hundreds of travel trailers in small camps all over the area, rudimentarily outfitted to try and handle harsh, winter weather. Several apartments are under construction on the south end of town, which may help lower the going rate – sometimes as high as $2,500 to $3,000 per month for a one-bedroom unit.

Several new teachers, who grew up in the area, simply moved back into the basement of their parents’ home, sometimes with spouse and children in tow.

“We’re concerned about retaining them, having to live under those conditions,” Lervick said.

McKenzie County School Board President Kelly Norby, whose father worked in the oil fields when he was growing up, understands what many families are going through.

“They’re just trying to make a living,” he says. “And we’re just trying to do the best we can with the kids.”

-Christi Stonecipher is a freelance writer for the Great Plains Examiner.  Great Plains Examiner Publisher Matt Bunk contributed to this story.

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