State Senate candidates confront area school challenges
Southwest North Dakota has a lot on its plate as fall elections near. Oil production has helped drive down the state's unemployment rate, but the benefits do not come without their drawbacks.
Back-to-school supplies are starting to line the aisles of stores across the nation and in the Oil Patch, those supplies are expected to fly off the shelves as populations boom.
With many area schools at capacity and beyond, educators have unique challenges in the coming years. With elections coming up in November, it could lead many to wonder what state Legislature candidates hope to bring to the discussion regarding Oil Patch schools?
Candidates for George Nodland's District 36 state Senate seat, Rich Brauhn, Democrat, and Kelly Armstrong, Republican, along with Dan Conner, chairman of the Department of Teacher Education at Dickinson State University, weighed in on the issue.
Many of his students who would like to stay in the area and schools need teachers, but the lack of housing is often a barrier.
"And we have even had a couple of school districts that have called us and said, 'If we can get somebody, housing will be included,'" Conner said.
One-time housing allowances or other short-term answers could help ease the crunch now, Armstrong said.
"Temporary solutions are just that, they're temporary," he said. "If you're trying to hire quality people, you have to be able to put them in quality housing."
DSU and Williston State College are having a hard time as well with its incoming faculty and staff, said Brauhn, a semi-retired administrator at the school.
"I think both of those schools will be looking at providing some kind of housing for new faculty because there just isn't anything available," he said.
Programs available to help students starting at a school mid-year are being utilized by schools with an influx of migrant workers in the Red River Valley that could be used in the Oil Patch for students here, Brauhn said.
"That would take some special kinds of consideration financially and special teachers and also some classroom space," he said.
Parental involvement should cover the gap left when a family moves and students change schools, Armstrong said. But teachers should be prepared to cope with an ever-changing roster.
DSU hasn't seen a dramatic change in the number of transfer students, Conner said. But it has seen more students transferring here because a significant other had a job opportunity in western North Dakota.
"The bigger school systems like Williston and Dickinson have different issues than the smaller school systems like Richardton or Arnegard," Armstrong said. "But they're all stressed and they all have infrastructure problems and they all have rapid enrollment growth and not necessary consistent enrollment growth."
North Dakota's biennium legislative system can cause delays in a solution, he said.
"Regardless, they need to streamline a process to get money into the western part of the state for these issues," Armstrong said, adding that money will not solve every problem.
A change in the formula for funding allocation may be needed to speed up the process, Brauhn said.
"I think it's easier to deal with the higher ed issues because they're more specific," Armstrong said. "Whenever it's a more specific problem, it's easier to find a more specific solution."
One of the biggest issues is pay, Brauhn said. It hard to offer enough to get educators to come here, and if someone does, DSU has to compete with temptation of higher wages in the oil field.
"They're finding it increasingly difficult to compete for staff because of the wage impact here," he said.
The cost of housing has been a barrier in finding faculty and staff to run DSU, Conner said.
"I think maybe if something like bonuses for teachers -- not just new teachers but existing teachers -- that are in these situations where housing may not be as affordable as other places," he said, adding he knew of a program in Massachusetts that offered up to $30,000 bonuses for signing three-year contracts.
Census data shows that before the oil boom many cities in the Oil Patch had declining populations. From 2000 to 2010, many of these cities grew, some for the first time in half a century. With this growth comes new need for classroom space, the creation of which could be troublesome.
"It's a catch-22 situation," Brauhn said. "If you build buildings and you've got a lot of need for those buildings, that's one thing, but if the need goes away in 10 years, then you've got empty buildings."
Mobile classrooms have been a welcome solution for many school districts, he said.
"That would probably be the wisest way to go," Brauhn said.
The upcoming Legislature will have to look at the sustainability of any school construction project it might fund, Armstrong said.
"You want to be able to have a school you can maintain if your enrollment -- I don't think it will ever decrease to pre-boom levels, but I do think there will be an ebb and flow to the enrollment in the Oil Patch -- and it would be nice to be able to have a facility that can be maintained," he said.