September 15, 2020


By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

As Watford City and Alexander school enrollment numbers swelled over the past 10 years with the increased oil activity in McKenzie County, the one big question that everyone had on their mind was, what would happen to the enrollment when oil activity dropped off? After all, McKenzie County has previously seen both the positive and negative effects that oil activity has had on school enrollment, as well as the local economy.
So when oil prices took a one-two punch last spring as the COVID-19 virus upended the world’s demand for oil and then Russia and Saudi Arabia got into an oil production war, oil activity ground to a complete halt. With thousands of North Dakota wells shut in due to low oil prices, oil companies began mass layoffs that resulted in over 10,000 jobs being lost almost overnight.
With the loss of jobs, the impacts on Watford City and Alexander, as well as the rest of the state’s oil patch communities, was immediately felt. Oilfield workers packed up and in a steady stream headed back home.
Suddenly the question as to what would happen to school enrollment became a very real issue. And more importantly had the McKenzie County Public School District No. 1 overbuilt?
In the last 10 years, the McKenzie County Public School District No. 1 has witnessed unprecedented growth as it saw student enrollment grow from 582 students in 2010 to a record 1,796 last year. And in the process, Watford City High School moved from Class B to Class A in sports. To handle that growth, the district had expanded its existing elementary school, built a new high school and converted the old high school into a middle school. And this year, the district opened a second elementary school.
But on the opening day of school in Watford City last week, 1,745 students showed up for classes - a mere drop of 51 students from last year.
So why didn’t school enrollment fall more dramatically when so many oilfield workers moved out of the area?
While there is no easy answer to that question, it may be safe to make a few assumptions.
First, the majority of the oilfield workers who left were single and worked on the drilling and completion side of the oil industry. That side of the industry always sees the greatest swings in employment.
Second, McKenzie County has a very high number of jobs on the production side of the industry, such as with the pipelines and gas plants that require permanent full-time employees to monitor and maintain the billions of dollars of infrastructure that have been built.
So it is safe to assume that it is those workers with families who are filling the production side jobs and keeping our school enrollment numbers steady. These are the same workers and families who are purchasing homes and making McKenzie County their home.