WATFORD CITY, N.D. — For the first time in more than a decade, fewer kids showed up on the first day of school in Watford City than in the year before.
A boom-and-bust town with near-constant job turnover, Watford City has long relied on its student enrollment numbers as a measure of population change in its broader community. And since before the fracking boom, the enrollment in the Watford City School District has reflected the growth in the region, as thousands of people have moved to western North Dakota for oil work, and as many of them have laid down roots and started families.
But this year, in a break from recent history, enrollment in the Watford City School District dropped, if only slightly. Superintendent Steve Holen noted that this marks the first time enrollment went down since 2008.
In-person classes resumed in Watford City on Sept. 8, and, according to figures finalized this week, the elementary school suffered the most severe drop, losing 67 students between the fall of 2019 and fall of 2020, or about 7% of elementary schoolers in last year's system.
Overall, district enrollment slid by 40 students, kindergarten through 12th grade, or around 2% of the whole student body.
This enrollment dip comes at the same time that the district unveiled a brand new, $35 million elementary school to make room for what was a severely overcrowded primary education system. The school is designed to hold 600 elementary school students, more than Watford City's entire K-12 population just 10 years ago.
But even with the debut of the new building, the small enrollment change has registered as good news for administrators in Watford City who spent much of summer expecting something more extreme.
"We were preparing, obviously, for some level of decline," Holen said. "To be even statistically close to where we were is kind of a moral victory for us."
Sen. Dale Patten, R-Watford City, said that in his view, the local school system essentially held steady. "I was surprised that it was that little. I thought that it would be more," he said, adding that he expects the district will get back on an upward track.
The trend was similar elsewhere in the region. "This year we actually stayed even," said Leslie Bieber, the school superintendent in Alexander, a small oil town 20 miles west of Watford City. The net change in Alexander was almost perfectly steady: While 36 students exited Alexander schools after last year, 32 new students entered the system, and the remaining difference was made up by a few more additions at the preschool level.
"I was expecting a drop, so I was very pleased that we held steady," Bieber said.
The small changes in McKenzie County schools put them close to on par with estimates for the rest of the state. Official enrollment numbers from across North Dakota are still rolling in, but Kirsten Baesler, the state superintendent for the Department of Public Instruction, said she's anticipating slight growth in the system in spite of uncertainty around in-person learning this year.
"We're still expecting a large, but not as large of an increase," Baesler said, adding that "all administrators have to deal with uncertainty," but those in the Oil Patch "have to do that on a more extreme basis."
Holen and Bieber both noted that the moving parts within their districts may not evenly reflect families departing from the region. A small minority of families in both districts pulled children out of public schools for homeschooling, likely in response to uncertainties around pandemic education: A total of 51 students in Watford City and 12 students in Alexander left to be home-schooled.
Still, some observers in Watford City suggested that the enrollment numbers in local school systems may not have been as revealing of population trends as they had initially hoped.
Daniel Stenberg, an economic development coordinator for McKenzie County, noted that oil field employees with families would be some of the last people to leave town in the bust. And, according to Stenberg, many oil companies tend to prioritize the long-term employment of workers with families, being quicker to cut the jobs of employees they assume to be more itinerant.
"If someone was pretty mobile and they got laid off, then yeah, they're probably not going to stay," Stenberg said. "If they're really rooted, they're less likely to go."
The latest economic data on McKenzie County, produced by Stenberg's office, also suggests persistent instability. Unemployment rates remain high, at 10%, compared to just 1.4% a year ago, and local apartment occupancy, which Stenberg estimates based on numbers provided by one large Watford City complex, has dropped from 68% last month to 60% now.
Patten said the most resilient jobs in the oil industry tend to be the ones filled by workers with families, noting that jobs in oil production have remained healthier than jobs in other industry sectors (The latest production report from the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources showed that the state has surpassed 1 million barrels of daily production for the first time since the start of the pandemic, even as it has only 10 oil drilling rigs in operation).
"Since there has been a higher incentive for families on the production side, that's kept them here," Patten said. "Whereas people on drilling, fracking and pipelines are more transient."
Watford City schools are used to near-unbridled growth, but in spite of this year's reversal to that trend, Patten expressed optimism at the future for jobs in the region.
"I believe we're going to go back," he said. "The sky is falling in the oil field and all that, according to Chicken Little and her friends, but enrollment held pretty steady."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.