Oil boom brings packed schools, tight budget

Schools in oil producing counties are bursting at the seams due to ongoing population growth, but school administrators say not much help is forthcoming from the state.

Under new legislation passed during the last legislative session, affected schools will receive oil and gas impact dollars via the Hub City Bill, but they must then must turn around and deduct 75 percent of what they received the previous year from per pupil aid payments.

School districts like Tioga could actually end up losing revenue under the new legislation.

Tioga Superintendent D’Wayne Johnston said that he appreciates the additional funding to schools in oil country, but it won’t be enough to help his school district keep up with rising costs. Johnston said he would like legislators to consider the higher costs of living and building in western North Dakota when it revisits the funding issue.

“That 25 percent of energy revenues that we do get to keep doesn’t cover the cost of doing business in the Bakken,” said Johnston. “If I want to build a 25,000-square-foot building in Tioga versus Fargo or Bismarck, the cost of us doing it out here, because of energy exploration, it’s doubled if not tripled.”

Tioga has 451 students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade, up about 55 students from last spring, said Johnston. The district is currently using a leased 10-classroom modular building to provide extra space, but Johnston said the district’s kitchens and cafeterias are overwhelmed and the district will likely have to consider adding an addition in the future. Johnston said he is looking into funding options that wouldn’t involve taking out loans.

Williston School District, where a school bond issue failed last year, will likely have to revisit the issue of school construction, said Supt. Viola LaFontaine. Williston is up 350 students from the end of the last school year, with 3,166 students in grades K-12. There are 52 modular classrooms in use throughout the school district, which has five elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. LaFontaine said it’s likely the district will, at the least, need to find a way to construct a new elementary school.

LaFontaine said school administrators will be lobbying legislators to change the funding formula during the next biennium so schools in oil counties will be able to keep a larger share of the oil and gas impact monies they receive.

Watford City just completed a $11.5 million elementary addition that added a 150 student capacity to the building, but Supt. Steve Holen said there’s need for more space.

The district has 1,027 students enrolled in grades K-12, up from 860 last year.

“We’re using every classroom,” said Holen, who said a former computer lab has been turned into a kindergarten classroom. A portable classroom set up outside the school has been turned into the new computer lab.

A study done last year showed that the school district will reach 1,600 students in five years.

“We’re a little ahead of the pace,” said Holen, who said the district will likely have to ask voters to approve a bond issue to pay for new school construction.

At Stanley, Supt. Tim Holte said there are 622 students enrolled in K-12, up from 596 last year. Work is finishing up on new school additions at the high school and the elementary school.