ND oil town's prosperity doesn't reach teachers

July 6, 2012 - 3:46 PM
Oil Town Teachers

In this June 8, 2012, McVay Elementary school in Williston, N.D., is shown. To keep pace with the expected influx of students, school officials are hiring 52 new teachers, adding dozens of modular classrooms and reopening McVay Elementary that shuttered a dozen years ago due to declining enrollment after the region's first oil boom went bust. (AP Photo/Williston Herald, Jackson Bolstad)

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Jobs paying $80,000 or more abound in North Dakota's booming oil patch, but when Molly Lippert came home from college, she gladly accepted a $31,500-a-year position teaching first grade.

"I'd really like to stay in the field of study I went to college for," said Lippert, 23. "The happiness that comes with teaching outweighs the price of anything else."

The cost of living has skyrocketed in Williston as job-seekers flock to the hub of western North Dakota's booming oil patch. Officials say the city's population has doubled in the past decade to some 30,000 residents and the average wage has risen from about $32,000 in 2006 to about $80,000. Pay for teachers hasn't kept up, although they are desperately needed.

Williston expects an influx of about 1,200 students this year, bringing enrollment to about 3,800 from about 2,600 last year. School officials are hiring 52 new teachers to add to the 190 they already have. They also are adding dozens of mobile classrooms and reopening an elementary school that closed a dozen years ago when the region's first oil boom went bust and enrollment fell.

North Dakota has risen from the nation's ninth leading oil producer to No. 2 in just six years, with advanced horizontal drilling techniques in the rich Bakken shale and Three Forks formations in the western part of the state. More than half of Williston's residents now work in oil-related jobs, and the city's unemployment rate is just 1 percent. There are some 3,000 unfilled jobs in the city.

There's also an extreme housing shortage. Lippert, who got married last month, will be staying with her in-laws. Her husband, Nick, another recent graduate, was hired as an architect by a construction firm in Williston. The newlyweds hope to eventually buy a townhome in the city.

"These are exciting times," Lippert said.

Others have not been so lucky. About 15 people have turned down teaching jobs due to the lack of housing or because they can't afford to live in Williston, school superintendent Viola LaFontaine said. To help address the problem, the district has leased two buildings with four apartments each for single teachers. Two teachers will share each apartment, LaFontaine said.

Lanny Gabbert, a high school science teacher and president of the Williston Education Association, said the salary for new teachers went up by $1,500 under the present contract. But that sum has been more than offset by the increased cost of living in Williston. Gabbert said rent for one of his fellow teachers jumped from $500 per month to $900 this year for the same apartment.

"Even with the bump in salary, technically he has less money that he did the previous year," Gabbert said, adding that improving pay will be a top issue when bargaining for a new two-year contract starts in September.

"We are a long way from where we should be," Gabbert said.

Dakota Draper, president of the North Dakota Education Association, said teacher salaries and lack of housing are big issues throughout the oil-producing region and have made it difficult to attract and retain teachers. He said more money will be needed for education in the oil patch, although lawmakers are still talking about "how much, where it will come from and who will pay for it."

"People want good schools and teachers for their kids," Draper said. "It costs a lot more in the oil patch."

Yet Williston has been flooded with teaching applications despite the high cost of living, lack of housing and comparatively low salaries for the jobs, LaFontaine said.

"I count my blessings," she said. "Not only have we gotten a lot of applications, we've gotten a lot of good applications. There are people who want to teach in Williston."

School administrators have hired about 40 teachers already this summer. About half have ties to the city and some will be living with family or friends, LaFontaine said.

One of the new hires is Kim Henneberry, 57, of Miles City, Mont. He's taught everywhere from one-room country schoolhouses to large public and Roman Catholic schools. In Williston, he'll teach reading, English and spelling.

Henneberry's wife, Cathie, has been living in Williston for the past 15 months, working at a Veterans Administration clinic. They sold their home in Montana last week and are buying a new house from one of Cathie Henneberry's co-workers.

Their new home costs three times what their old home sold for in Montana, Kim Henneberry said. Still, he and his wife feel lucky to have found a home in Williston.

"I have no idea where beginning teachers are going to live," Henneberry said. "This is an unforgivably difficult place to find a place to live."

Henneberry also is fortunate to be earning more with his experience and a master's degree. Still, he said, it's nothing compared to what others are making. He recently bumped into a former student from Montana who landed a job in the oil patch.

"The guy has zero college and walks out of high school and is making 90-grand," he said. "To me that seems to be an injustice."