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Oil Boom Crowding North Dakota Schools

Oil Boom Crowding North Dakota Schools
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The oil boom in North Dakota and Montana has brought a flood of people to once sparsely-populated rural towns. The rapid pace of expansion in the town of Williston, North Dakota is putting pressure on all kinds of local services -- from fire and emergency response to road construction and utilities. The increased number of students in the public school system in Williston is crowding its now outdated facilities.

Through oil boom and bust, and now boom again, John Monger says life’s been a roller coaster in his hometown of Williston.

“Born and raised here. Been living in this town for 47 years,” he said.

Monger is now in his 24th year teaching at Hagan Elementary, the last three of them spent working in a temporary modular trailer attached to the school.

“The modular classrooms are smaller than the regular classroom," he said. "Right now I have 18 students, and I started the year out with 16 students.”

The oil boom in North Dakota is attracting an overwhelming number of job seekers whose children are crowding the halls of Hagan Elementary.

“We’ve increased enrollment of over 1,000 students in the past four to five years," said Viola LaFontaine, superintendent of Williston Public Schools. "And a majority of them are elementary students, about 70 percent of them are elementary students.”

LaFontaine is the administrator of the smallest but fastest-growing public school district in the state of North Dakota. She says it's also one of the state's most international.

“I believe its seven different languages that we have spoken in school now," she said. "A majority are Spanish, but we have Cantonese, and French.”

While teachers like Monger cope with the challenges of larger class sizes, smaller classrooms, and foreign languages, they are dealing with a constantly changing student body.

“The greatest challenge is the students coming in an out and throughout the entire school year, as well as students leaving throughout the school year,” LaFontaine said.

LaFontaine says other big challenges are recruiting qualified teachers and financing construction of new facilities to accommodate Williston’s rapidly-growing population. Though the state of North Dakota is awash in oil revenue, LaFontaine says, it is not providing the funds she needs.

“North Dakota’s always been conservative. I don’t think that’s a bad thing," she said. "But now that you’ve got ample resources, let us have some of it. Whether it’s grants or loans or preferably grants that you could use to really support your schools.”

“We would definitely like to see another school put in place in the town because we definitely need one," said Monger. "Where I teach right now, and a lot of the other teachers, the classrooms are a lot smaller than the regular.”

Voters in Williston will soon get the chance to take the matter into their own hands. A referendum to raise taxes to fund construction of new school facilities is on the ballot in June. But it’s not the first time -- a previous referendum failed in 2012.
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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.