ND oil town’s prosperity doesn’t reach teachers

Jul 6, 2012, 7:23 PM

Associated Press

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.”

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

United States News

A high altitude balloon floats over Billings, Mont., on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. The huge, high-alt...
Associated Press

Chinese balloon soars across US; Blinken scraps Beijing trip

A Chinese balloon sailing across the U.S. drew severe Pentagon accusations and sent excited or alarmed Americans outside with binoculars.
21 hours ago
Protesters march Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, in Memphis, Tenn., over the death of Tyre Nichols, who di...
Associated Press

6th officer fired after beating death of Tyre Nichols

A sixth Memphis officer was fired Friday after an internal police investigation showed he violated multiple department policies in the violent arrest of Tyre Nichols.
21 hours ago
(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)...
Associated Press

Denver Court throws out Wyoming doctor’s pill convictions

A federal appeals court on Friday threw out the convictions of a doctor accused of overprescribing powerful pain medication and ordered a new trial for him.
21 hours ago
A hiring sign is displayed at a restaurant in Rolling Meadows, Ill., Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. America...
Associated Press

A surprising burst of US hiring in January: 517,000 jobs

WASHINGTON (AP) — For nearly a year, the Federal Reserve has been on a mission to cool down the job market to help curb the nation’s worst inflation bout in four decades. The job market hasn’t been cooperating. Consider what happened in January: The government said Friday that employers added a sizzling 517,000 jobs last […]
21 hours ago
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)...
Associated Press

$580M headed to 15 Native American tribes to fulfill water rights

Fifteen Native American tribes will get a total of $580 million to fund settlements that ensure access to water that's legally theirs.
2 days ago
(Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)...
Associated Press

Biden’s handwritten notes part of classified documents probe

Some of President Joe Biden's handwritten notes are now a part of a special counsel’s investigation into the handling of classified documents.
2 days ago

Sponsored Articles

(Pexels Photo)...

Sports gambling can be fun for adults, but it’s a dangerous game for children

While adults may find that sports gambling is a way to enhance the experience with more than just fandom on the line, it can be a dangerous proposition if children get involved in the activity.
(Desert Institute for Spine Care photo)...
DESERT INSTITUTE FOR SPINE CARE

Why DISC is world renowned for back and neck pain treatments

Fifty percent of Americans and 90% of people at least 50 years old have some level of degenerative disc disease.
(Photo via MLB's Arizona Fall League / Twitter)...
Arizona Fall League

Top prospects to watch at this year’s Arizona Fall League

One of the most exciting elements of the MLB offseason is the Arizona Fall League, which began its 30th season Monday.
ND oil town’s prosperity doesn’t reach teachers