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3,100 new students expected in Oil Patch

Officials are worried schools in the Oil Patch may not be able to accommodate the 3,100 children a study released this week estimates are coming to the area this fall.

The schools may need almost $99 million for facilities, according to the survey, which was requested by Gov. Jack Dalrymple.

Williston schools expect about 1,600 new students will enter the doors, according to the survey. Dickinson, Bowman, Halliday and South Heart could see a combined total of 200.

"When I first became very involved in education policy, most of the conversation among education leaders was decrease enrollment and school consolidation and school closing, and now that has completely reversed," said Kirsten Baesler, the Republican candidate for superintendent of public instruction. "We are in a totally new era."

Larry Klundt, LAK Educational Consulting owner and consultant in Bismarck, asked more than 30 school districts how many students they expected in the fall, what classrooms they would need and the expected costs.

"(The governor) wanted to get a handle on that just to see how much of a financial impact it was having on the schools to see whether the state could do something to help them out," Klundt said.

Local schools are preparing for an influx. Dickinson has plans to build an elementary school and South Heart is working on bringing in temporary classrooms.

The student numbers are compelling because they exceed the capacity of the facilities, and the state Legislature should meet for a special session to address the issue, said Max Laird, the Democratic candidate for superintendent of public instruction.

"It seems to me that we need to have with this oil process the ability to move an agenda with the approval of the legislature to support these schools to catch up," he said.

Cities outside the Oil Patch are also growing, Baesler said. Mandan expects 500 additional students to come into its district in the next four years, she added.

A second wave of students may come to North Dakota from non-oil-related jobs such as sales, Superintendent of Public Instruction Wayne Sandstead said.

"It's going to be a numbers game," he said.

The Board of University and School Lands awarded $5 million from the oil and gas impact fund Friday to help rapidly-growing Oil Patch schools fund temporary K-8 portable classrooms. While the state has offered aid, it may not be enough, the consultant said.

"Most of those schools don't have enough taxable capacity to raise enough money to build the buildings that are going to be required," he said.

Schools will also have to hire teachers and buy equipment, making the situation a real dilemma, Klundt added.

Klundt's numbers are a rough estimate, said Jerry Coleman, North Dakota Department of Public Instruction director of school finance.

"At least right now it's kind of limbo land in terms of making funding decisions," he said. "We don't have any hard facts of what the needs are."

DPI will take a count of students in September. North Dakota State University should also finish its student enrollment study for the Bakken region in November, said the governor's spokesman, Jeff Zent.

Despite how many students may come, all entities of government need to work together to make sure educational needs are met, Baesler said.

"It would be better to get ahead of the game than to react to it," she added.