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Williston State gets $2 million

Williston State College President Raymond Nadolny knows firsthand how an economic boom can create new opportunities, and new challenges, for a nearby college.

Williston State College President Raymond Nadolny knows firsthand how an economic boom can create new opportunities, and new challenges, for a nearby college.

He accepted a position in 2000 with Lake Washington Technical College, which was dealing with its own issues at its campus in Redmond, Wash., during the rapid growth of Redmond-based Microsoft.

"But the Microsoft boom is in no way comparable to what is being experienced here," he said. Western North Dakota's oil boom, he said, has led to new growth for WSC, the third-smallest of the 11-member North Dakota University System.

But Nadolny said it also has caused a new wave of problems, including inadequate security, infrastructure and employee retention. He said the college has lost about one-quarter of its staff since spring as employees moved or, in some cases, were lured away by oil companies offering higher pay or better perks.

At a special session earlier this month, all but two of the state's 141 legislators agreed to give WSC an additional $2 million of state funding, with practically no strings attached.

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The agreement stands out in North Dakota politics, considering the Legislature generally has resisted big increases to higher education funding this year.

Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, said WSC faces "extraordinary" circumstances. "We've had some disasters in the state where there have been communities that have been flooded with water," Skarphol said. "The city of Williston is actually experiencing a flood of people."

"My colleagues in both the Senate and the House were convinced," he said.

Extra funding

Skarphol introduced House Bill 1477 during the special session to amend a higher education funding bill the Legislature approved this spring. Dickinson State University got more flexibility in how it uses $750,000 aimed at the Theodore Roosevelt Center. The North Dakota State College of Science saw $4 million already approved shift to renovations at Riley Hall.

But the biggest change was the $2 million in new funding for WSC.

"I really believed that I could manage with the funding that was in place, but this growth came so fast and so sudden that it really caught us questioning, 'How do we react to something that is just so incredibly fast?'" Nadolny said. "I don't know if it's slowing down and I don't know where the peak is."

The bill specifies the one-time funding will be used "for public safety or other unusual or unexpected expenses" related to oil and gas development.

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Nadolny said there are two main focuses for the extra funding: campus safety and employee recruitment and retention.

More security

In recent years, Williston has seen a wave of workers, oil activity and new money rolls into the area. The population climbed nearly 18 percent over the past decade to an official 2010 census count of 14,716 residents -- but its actual population is likely higher because that figure doesn't include oil workers living in temporary housing.

Nadolny said the growing population, including permanent residents and temporary workers housed in the so-called "man camps," has not been matched by growth in the community's retail, housing and social opportunities.

That means there are more people than ever but few opportunities for recreation and gathering, he said. "So if you want to go into a place where you have any type of social networking, you really end up coming to the college."

WSC has worked to offer more activities for the community at large, Nadolny said, but the college could not keep up with the security needs that accompany the growing number of visitors.

With the new state funding, WSC officials plan to buy a backup generator in case the power goes out again in Williston as it did last spring for five days.

He said the funding also will put security cameras in the residence hall and hire a daytime security guard; there's only one at night now.

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Employee loss

The state funding also will help WSC deal with employee recruitment and retention.

Skarphol said high-paying oil jobs caused the community's average annual wage to climb to $55,313, more than a 20 percent increase in just one year.

It has been nearly impossible for the college to compete with the oil companies, one reason why WSC has lost so much of its staff of 125 in the past six months, Nadolny.

The departed employees' skills and experiences have been difficult to replace, he said, and the school has lost many top officials, including its financial aid director and vice president for business services.

After returning to campus from the special session in Bismarck he said he learned he'd lost a food service worker and a top information technology employee, recruited by the former vice president to work for an oil company.

He said the college has done its best to fill vacancies, but there is still a high "learning curve" to get back to where it needs to be. "I have many, many new employees and, in some cases, what appears to be new departments."

But Nadolny said staffing problems go beyond tough competition with high-paying oil jobs. The oil boom has caused a housing crunch and dramatic increases in rent, which he said makes recruiting employees from outside of the community difficult.

WSC also has lost three of its existing employees in the past year because of a lack of child care, he said.

New incentives

The extra money will help the college start addressing all three of these workforce issues.

Some possibilities include incentives for existing employees to cope with the region's wage inflation, as well as setting up child care on campus.

The school is also considering two 64-unit apartments on campus that could house college employees, as well as state, city and school district employees, who also struggle with housing.

Nadolny said his goal is to get those apartments open in a year at a cost of about $10 million per building, but the plan still needs to be approved by the State Board of Higher Education.

The changes that have happened to campus since he started about two and a half years ago have been "quite remarkable" and have created a "very, very challenging work environment," Nadolny said.

But the Legislature's overwhelming support of the college's needs, he said, was "an unbelievable example of government at its best."

"I was feeling pretty needy and at a loss, and they really did come in and lend a hand where it was really needed," he said. "I just can't thank them enough."

Reach Johnson at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send email to rjohnson@gfherald.com .

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