January 12, 2016

Study: Watford City student numbers expected to top 3,000

By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

With oil prices falling from their record high of over $100 a barrel to today’s prices in the lower $30 per barrel range, some would say that the “sky is falling” in McKenzie County and Watford City.
But according to a new enrollment study for the McKenzie County Public School District No. 1, the sky is hardly falling. And in fact, school administrators need to be planning for an annual 10 percent growth in student numbers for at least the next 10 years.
“Based on all of the demographic data that we have been able to obtain over the last several years, we see considerable enrollment growth for the district,” stated Rob Schwarz of RSP & Associates. “We are projecting that the district’s enrollment will grow by 10 percent a year for several years to come.”
According to Schwarz, who shared the latest enrollment projections at a special school board meeting on Jan. 5, the district can expect to see an enrollment of over 2,100 students by the start of the 2020-21 school year. And will then see enrollment grow to more than 3,200 just five years later.
“No one knows for sure what’s going on here,” stated Schwarz, “The biggest issue that could impact the number of students enrolling is going to be the amount of single family housing in the community.”
But according to Schwarz, with the new high school, the new Event Center and the new hospital being built, Watford City is poised to take advantage of a future upswing in oil prices.
“You have the amenities that are attractive to new families,” stated Schwarz.
While Schwarz says that the infrastructure improvements that Watford City has made will be an asset, he says that it will be growth in oil production jobs in McKenzie County that will help drive not only the school’s enrollment, but the city’s population.
“The North Dakota Dept. of Mineral Resources is projecting that there will be an additional 12,000 oil field jobs in McKenzie County by 2020,” stated Schwarz. “Those new jobs are going to be on the production side of the oil industry. And those are long-term jobs.”
Schwarz says that based on their demographic study, RSP expects to see a steady growth in both population and student enrollment numbers in Watford City.
And for Steve Holen, district superintendent, permanent jobs leads to permanent students.
“We have seen a lot of students coming and going with the changes in the oil field,” stated Holen. “This past year, we saw more out-migration, which cut into our growth.”
But, according to Schwarz, as more and more of the oil field jobs in McKenzie County shift to the production side, the out-migration of students will lessen.
“The number of new jobs that are going to be in McKenzie County and your city’s amenities are going to drive the enrollment going forward,” stated Schwarz.
So what does the new enrollment numbers mean for McKenzie County Public School District No. 1?
The answer is that more students will start to swell the existing school buildings to overflow capacity.
“As we grow to these new numbers, we’re going to run out of space in all three of our current buildings,” states Holen.
Based on the new enrollment projections, the elementary school, which will only house kindergarten through the third grade, will exceed its 650 student capacity by the start of the 2018 school year. And by the start of the 2020 school year, all three of the district’s school buildings will be over capacity.
“I thought that the growth was going to be slower,” states Holen. “But these are the best projections that we have based on the data that we have. And they are going to be the numbers that we are going to use to do our planning.”
According to Holen, as of Jan. 8, 2016, the district had a total enrollment of 1,329 students.
“It is staggering to think that we could see our enrollment more than double by 2024,” states Holen.