With school year looming, Oil Patch superintendent resigns
WILLISTON, N.D. -- With just one week before the start of school, the superintendent of Williston’s New Public School District resigned Monday.
Fran Swensgard’s immediate resignation, announced at Monday night’s school board meeting, comes at an awkward time for the district, as it is the midst of 2014-15 contract negotiations with the teachers union.
School board President David Rockstad said Swensgard cited personal reasons for her departure. This would have marked her third year with the mostly rural K-8 district, which, like other districts in North Dakota’s Oil Patch, has been dealing with the challenges that have come with oil development and population boom.
“They were challenging and a little contentious with different individuals. It’s not an easy job for anyone,” he said.
As for the contract negotiations, Rockstad said they are taking place later than usual, and the sticking point is housing — a make-it-or-break-it reality for many working in the Bakken, which has seen rental prices skyrocket.
The teachers union is pushing for a housing allowance or stipend included in the salary package. However, two North Dakota School Boards Association attorneys said that’s not legal, Rockstad said.
He said the average salary for a teacher in the district last year was $49,085, the second highest among districts in Williams County. But with the cost of housing, teachers still come up short.
“We’re the second highest paid in our county, but it’s not enough to pay the bills,” Rockstad said.
He said the district owns about a half-block on 7th Avenue West in Williston that is occupied by the district’s office and a house, where four staff members live.
The district also rents two to four apartments in a Williston State College-owned building. In all, the district provides housing for only about a dozen staff.
“We don’t have the finances to purchase or set up a foundation to help. … We don’t have any solutions. We have to think out of the box and think of a solution that’s equitable and livable for both sides,” Rockstad said.
The New Public School District is a rural school district that takes students from communities around Williston, as well as some from within city limits, said school board member Jenny Jorgenson. It was formed in the 1950s from the consolidation of more than 100 small schools — mostly one-room schools, according to the district website.
The district has three schools around Williston.
At the end of the 2013-14 school year, enrollment was close to 290 students, Swensgard said. This year the number will be about 350, nearly double from four years ago.
She said the district, covering 1,161 square miles, went from a mom-and-pop operation to one that has changed with the influx of students.
“Many students are living in trailer camps. … There’s a large homeless population and our free and reduced (school meals) is huge,” Swensgard said.
District Principal Steve Guglich said Tuesday the district is still looking to hire four classroom teachers, two support staff, a media specialist and a physical education teacher.
On July 31, the North Dakota Board of University and School Lands awarded more than $10 million to schools affected by energy development.
The New Public School District received nearly $200,000 for portable classrooms — not housing, Rockstad was quick to point out.
The Williston School District, which comprises most of the city, benefits from additional state funding, through its designation as a “hub city.”
The formula approved during the 2013 legislative session defined a hub city as one with at least 12,500 people and having more than 1 percent of its private employees engaged in drilling and mining.
But Rockstad said he does not begrudge Williston’s status.
“We are not at odds with District 1. We do not get any of that hub city money, and it makes it extremely difficult for us to move ahead and help our people,” he said.
This is not the first time the district has had to weather the absence of a superintendent. Rockstad said he’s confident the principals will step up until a new superintendent is hired.
“We’ve been down this road before. I have extreme confidence in our principals,” he said. “We’re kind of like a family here.”