Posted 8/26/14 (Tue)
By Neal A. Shipman
When McKenzie County Public School District No. 1 opened its doors last Thursday for the start of the 2014 school year, school administrators knew that they were going to see a continuation of the upward enrollment trend. The big question was just how many more students would be attending classes in our district this year? And more importantly, how many more elementary school students would be showing up?
Well, the unofficial numbers are now in, and McKenzie County Public School District No. 1’s enrollment is 1,350 students in kindergarten through 12th grade as of Monday, Aug. 25. The official numbers won’t be set until the first part of September, but school administrators are now reasonably confident that the final numbers will show that the district has grown by over 325 students since last fall’s enrollment of 1,025 students.
The growth of student numbers in our school district is definitely good news. A growing student body, especially in the elementary school, is a true indication that families are moving into Watford City and the surrounding area.
For those of us that watched as our school district went through declining enrollment, the closing of elementary schools at Johnson Corners and Grassy Butte, as well as the reduction in teaching staff, the reversal in student numbers has been nothing but astounding. Thinking back just five years ago, the district only had 582 total students. Today, there are 720 students in just kindergarten through fifth grade in the elementary school.
Thanks to the booming economy, which has swelled our local population to around 15,000 in Watford City and in the immediate vicinity, McKenzie County Public School District No. 1 has become the largest Class B school district in the state and has overtaken Class A schools Valley City and Wahpeton in enrollment.
While the growth in enrollment is good, it has also brought about its share of challenges to the school district.
The biggest of those challenges is finding a way to house all of the new students that are pouring into the district. One year ago, the district spent $11 million expanding the existing elementary school to handle the projected growth. Unfortunately, that new expansion wasn’t adequate to handle the growth at the elementary school and the only way to accommodate the increased number of elementary students was to move the sixth grade class to the high school. This year, the fifth grade class was moved to portable classrooms to allow for more space for the lower grades. So a building that was designed for 625 students is now crammed with 720 students.
But, the overcrowded conditions aren’t just at the elementary school. The high school, which has a capacity of 550 students, now has over 625 students. And school administrators fear that unless they can figure out how to increase the capacity of the new high school that is slated to open in December of 2016 from 600 to 800 students, it is going to be way too small on the day it opens.
One would think that the obvious solution would be for the district to simply put more money into the new high school project and to build another elementary school. Unfortunately, that is not possible as the school district is currently tapped out of funds, and it doesn’t have the ability to bond any more funds from the local taxpayers.
Where is the needed money going to come from to help build the schools that we need? It’s a good question. One would hope that the North Dakota Legislature could find a way to help finance school construction in oil-impacted school districts. With all of the oil tax dollars that are flowing into the state’s coffers, one would think that the state would be able to figure out a way to return a portion of those revenues to help meet our school building needs.