Teacher shortage follows Great Plains oil boom

Teacher shortage follows Great Plains oil boom

(N.D.) The oil rush here has brought a lot of things to the state, among them jobs, revenue and people – including an overwhelming number of new K-12 students.

What it hasn’t brought, however, are the extra teachers needed to educate those pupils.

“The impact on schools – especially in the western part of the state which is the epicenter of the oil boom and exploration – is dramatic,” said Jon Martinson, executive director of the North Dakota School Boards Association. “They can’t build housing quickly enough, and at an affordable enough price, to house the people that we need in terms of education.”

North Dakota, among the largest, yet one of the least populated, states in the nation, has faced an onslaught of challenges brought on by a fairly recent and massive increase in oil production. Much of the revenue from oil extraction taxes are directed, through prior legislation, into more than 20 different funds, some of which can’t be accessed until several years from now.

Districts are combining local construction bond funds with money from the state intended for new schools to begin building the facilities that they need. New subdivisions are springing up as developers try to keep up with demand from all the new oil industry employees flocking to the area but market pressure is also pushing property values sky high.

One group left out of the boom are teachers, whose salary typically begins at about $47,000 – meanwhile the average salary in the oil and natural gas industry was more than $111,000 last year.

In Williston, one of the many North Dakota communities sitting atop the second-richest oil field in the U.S., the population more than doubled from 14,700 people in 2010 to some 33,000 people in 2012.

That growth fueled a corresponding spike in housing costs. A two-bedroom apartment rents for between $2,000 and $2,800 a month, Martinson said, meaning a new teacher would pay more than half his or her gross salary to rent.

Lawmakers seeking to address the problem have proposed a $400 million increase to the state’s $2 billion education budget.

The proposal offers no money specifically dedicated to increasing teacher salaries but there is language triggering additional funds for the two-year budget cycle beginning in 2015 that could be used to increase teacher pay. There is also hope that the Legislature will take up the issue in the next session, as educator salaries are set by state law.

Meanwhile, money for teachers is being threatened by a popular ballot referendum that, if passed, would create a Constitutional amendment setting aside $300 million annually for clean water, wildlife protection and parks.

If Measure 5, passes, said Martinson, “all bets are off for that kind of increase for K-12 education.”

Like Williston, nearby Watford City has seen dramatic population growth as well, jumping from 1,744 residents in 2010 to between 5,000 and 7,000, according to local estimates. The population is projected to nearly triple in the next 15 years, according to some reports.

The local school district in July broke ground on a new $50 million high school to relieve overcrowding in its schools, which have seen unprecedented growth. Since 2010, the K-12 enrollment has gone from 582 students to 1,200 this year, Steve Holen, superintendent of McKenzie County School District No. 1 told the McKenzie County Farmer this summer.

District officials had first enlarged the elementary school and moved sixth graders to the high school but moved forward on the new facility after voters approved a $27 million bond in March.

In many districts portable classrooms being used as a temporary solution to overcrowding clutter school campuses, Martinson said.

According to Nick Archuleta, president of the state’s largest teachers union, North Dakota United, 200 teaching positions were unfilled at the start of this school year, and substitutes are also in short supply.

To deal with the shortage, he said, schools have received emergency waivers to increase class sizes and share teachers where possible.

State education officials have also worked to relax rules governing substitute teachers. Instead of being required to have a teaching credential, a person may substitute in a classroom if he or she has earned a two-year degree.

Prior to the North Dakota’s last two budget cycles, said Archuleta, nearly 70 percent of new revenues for education had been allocated for teacher salaries but more is needed.

The school funding increase proposed by a Legislative committee earlier this month would allow districts to pay teachers higher salaries and benefits, among other things, Sen. Tim Flakoll, a Fargo Republican, told the Bismarck Tribune.

Under the plan, the per-student funding rate would jump to $9,482 in 2015-16, a $390 increase over the current rate, and to $9,766 in 2016-17.

North Dakota’s per-pupil spending has increased by 31.6 percent – more than any other state in the nation, according to a report released last week ranking states’ education spending changes since 2008.

But large chunks of oil tax revenues have yet to be distributed; schools have many needs and there’s no guarantee of additional funding just yet, education advocates say. Plus, the federal government may be considering cracking down on ‘fracking,’ the new but controversial technology that opened North Dakota’s oil floodgates in the first place.

“School districts are going to have to reprioritize their needs, and if they need new teachers, they’re going to have to put some new money on the table,” union president Archuleta said. “We’re certainly going to lobby to make sure we get the state to put forward as many resources as possible to attract and retain good teachers.”

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