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Posted 8/31/11 (Wed)

By Neal A. Shipman

Farmer Editor

There was a time not so very long ago that school administrators with the McKenzie County Public School District No. 1 in Watford City were forecasting some pretty gloomy enrollment numbers. As with virtually every other rural community in western North Dakota, Watford City schools were seeing their enrollment numbers drying up rapidly as fewer and fewer young families with children were living, or moving, into the area.
It was just a sign of the times. It was a time when the prophecy of the Buffalo Commons Area appeared to be coming true. That prophecy held that the Midwest portion of the United States, because it was primarily supported by agriculture and was without any major industry, was going to ultimately become so sparsely populated that the land should be taken over by the federal government and turned into some form of wildlife refuge.
Of course, the proponents of the Buffalo Commons Area were properly chastised by people living in these rural areas. How dare some “Eastern” elitists publicly say that the Midwest as a whole was dying?
But in the back of everyone’s mind, we all knew that our communities were shrinking. We saw it daily as our communities were losing population, school enrollment numbers were falling at alarming rates and longtime businesses were closing their doors for good because of the poor economies. There did not seem to be any positive light at the end of the tunnel.
But low and behold, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Or more appropriately, there was a light at the bottom of an oil drill bit.
The boom is back, and for those of us living with the Bakken and Three Forks oil formations lying beneath us, things have certainly changed. Some of the changes have been for the better and some have been for the worse.
And rather than dwell on the negative, most people look at the positive things that the new energy boom is bringing to our communities.
First, and foremost, the boom has brought a whole new group of people into our communities. First came the men who left their families behind in Washington, Idaho, Montana, Minnesota, Michigan and Wyoming, to name just a few of the states that are suffering economically. These men came to western North Dakota to see if they could find jobs and earn a decent living, and they lived meagerly so that they could send as much money back home to their families as possible.
But once it became clear that secure jobs were available, families started joining their husbands and dads. And now the rush seems to be on as more and more families are deciding to stake their lives and their futures in communities like Watford City.
Which brings us back to the good news of increasing school enrollment.
Four years ago, when the talk of new oil finds in western North Dakota was just starting to make the headlines, the total enrollment at McKenzie County Public School District No. 1 had dropped to 512 students at the end of the 2007-08 school year. To make matters worse, school administrators were projecting that by the 2010-11 school year (last school year), those enrollment figures could actually drop below 300 students, which would have meant a reduction in teaching staff.
Fortunately, thanks to the influx of new families who are now calling Watford City and McKenzie County home, the projections of fewer and fewer students never materialized. In fact, just the opposite is now occurring. School administrators saw enrollment increases last year, and now this year, 705 students showed up for class the first week in Watford City.
And increasing school enrollment is a very good thing to see. It is a sign of a healthy and growing community.