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Oil patch schools in dire need

WILLISTON, N.D. - Oil Patch school districts seeing an influx of new students are in a state of emergency, superintendents told legislators Thursday during a meeting here.

Stanley Superintendent Kent Hjelmstad identified more than $200 million in needs for northwest North Dakota schools that anticipate as many as 3,000 new students next year.

Hjelmstad said the emergency needs include new buildings, additional staff, more buses, support for a growing special education population, teacher housing and equipment.

As housing becomes available in northwest North Dakota, more oil workers are going to bring their families and "the kids will now come in droves," he said.

"There are literally kids standing there saying 'Where are you going to put us?' " Hjelmstad said.

Members of the Education Funding and Taxation Committee met jointly this week in Williston with the Energy Development and Transmission Committee to tour the area and hear about the needs in oil country.

The Williston Public School District projects an enrollment increase of as many as 1,200 students next fall. Superintendent Viola LaFontaine said modular classrooms are creating a temporary solution, but those will soon be maxed out. About one-third of the district's classrooms are modular, including some that are from 1981 and one that has sunk into the ground, LaFontaine said.

"I don't think that's OK," she said.

The Williston district would like to build a new elementary school and a new middle school and is working with an architect to guide the process, LaFontaine said.

School officials said the changes are happening so rapidly that they can't wait for the next legislative session to get some relief.

"These are right-now issues because we have to have the teachers by August. We have to have a place for them to live by August," said Marlyn Vatne, superintendent for Ray Public Schools. "We can't look for money two years down the road."

Hjelmstad suggested North Dakota consider creating a commission similar to one that Wyoming established to help schools respond quickly to growth related to coal.

McKenzie County Public School Superintendent Steve Holen said districts in Beulah and Hazen received funding in the 1970s and 1980s for the impact of coal development.

Holen suggested several possible solutions, including re-evaluating districts' debt limits, providing low-interest construction bonds and adjusting how oil and gas production tax revenue is distributed.

Committee chairwoman RaeAnn Kelsch, R-Mandan, said she has suggested that cities assess a fee for new homes that are being built that could be designated to new school buildings.

Several legislators questioned why the increased property tax base in the communities wouldn't be able to support the growing school districts.

Superintendents said that eventually the property tax base will provide more support, but currently many of the students they serve live in temporary housing.