Williston teacher salaries lag behind Oil Patch neighbors

Williston, N.D., teacher Matt Liebel leads an eighth-grade earth science class on Monday, Aug. 26, 2013. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – Jeff Winslow spent a week this summer working on a drilling rig, earning as much as he did in his first two months teaching middle school in Williston.

Winslow, a 30-year-old health teacher, didn’t continue with the oil industry job, opting to stick with his passion.

But he finds that it’s tough to survive on a teacher’s salary in a town where rent and other expenses have risen with the oil boom.

Winslow, who is married with a 17-month-old son, said his situation is “bearable” because he earns more with a master’s degree and for coaching three sports. But he says other new teachers, many with college loan debt, are struggling in Williston.

“There are teachers, especially in my age demographic, that are looking to get out of here,” said Winslow, who is beginning his fourth year in Williston. “They just can’t afford to live here.”

Salary is the main point of contention in ongoing teacher negotiations with Williston Public Schools. Although Williston’s current starting salary of $30,500 is on par with other North Dakota districts, it’s on the bottom when compared to surrounding schools in the Oil Patch.

The district is offering to increase the pay, but the two sides have not agreed on what that salary should be. The next negotiation meeting is Thursday.

Superintendent Viola LaFontaine said she agrees teachers should be paid more, but the district can’t afford what the teachers are asking for in addition to expenses associated with the rapidly growing enrollment.

For example, renting 32 portable classrooms to accommodate the estimated 3,150 students costs $33,000 a month.

“You have to sustain it,” LaFontaine said. “If you do increase salaries, it’s not just a one-time shot of $2 million, you’ve got to be able to maintain that additional cost in the future.”

In addition, district leaders are learning that recent legislation designed to send more oil revenue to schools in rapid growth areas won’t do much for Williston.

“It seemed like we got penalized,” LaFontaine said.

Housing hassles

Affordable housing is the main obstacle for teachers in Williston.

The school district owns two four-plex apartment buildings to provide an affordable option for new teachers. Most apartments are shared by two teachers who split rent of about $800 a month.

The district anticipated that teachers would live in those buildings for one year until they could find other housing, but many are staying for a second year, LaFontaine said.

This year, the district has eight apartments for teachers in a building that opened recently at Williston State College. Rent there is slightly more expensive, but much more affordable than a typical apartment in Williston, where a two-bedroom apartment in a new building often rents for about $2,500 a month.

The district is working to potentially secure additional apartments, LaFontaine said.

“At this rate, every year we need more housing,” she said.

Jeff Winslow, pictured Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, in Williston, N.D., coaches middle school football and teaches health. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

Winslow moved to Williston after he was laid off in Seattle. He married a North Dakota native and the couple spent their first year in Williston, and their first year of marriage, living in a relative’s basement.

After that, the couple made offers on some houses, expecting their offers to be too low. But one woman agreed to lower her price if it meant keeping the young family in town.

Eighth-grade earth science teacher Matt Liebel has a rare two-bedroom apartment in Williston that rents for $550 a month.

But every time he gets a letter in his door from his landlord, he fears that it could be a notice of a rent hike.

“You watch the prices go up on everything around here,” said Liebel, a native of Watford City.

Liebel, in his fifth year at Williston Middle School, coaches three sports and works as a referee in addition to running a fishing guide service in the summers. He’s considered moving to another part of the state where his paycheck would go farther, but he likes his department and doesn’t want to leave.

However, Liebel is expecting a son in October and is unsure what effect that may have on his future plans.

“If you want to start a family and you don’t want to live in an apartment your entire life, you want a house, it’s tough, very tough,” Liebel said.

Some of Williston’s experienced teachers, including those who owned homes before the oil boom, say they’re struggling as well.

“The price of food, the price of gas, the price of just living in this town has gone up so much,” said Marc Davis, a building and construction trades teacher at Williston High School.

Davis coaches football and works as a contractor to supplement his income.

“I’m running ragged every day, going, going, going, trying to make ends meet,” Davis said.

If he got a raise, Davis said he could spend more time with his family and make more time for students who want to help in his classroom after school.

“I love my students, but sometimes I’ve got to shoo them away because I’ve got to get going,” Davis said.

Difficult negotiations

Jonathan Abuhl, a high school German teacher who is leading contract negotiations on behalf of the teachers, said teachers analyzed what six surrounding districts in the Oil Patch pay and found that others are more aggressive at keeping up with the oil boom.

For example, this year new teachers with no previous experience will make $40,100 in Watford City, $45,720 in Tioga, $38,000 in Stanley and $38,400 in Dickinson, according to the districts’ contracts.

It’s difficult to make direct comparisons because some of the other districts don’t contribute as much toward teachers’ retirement or health insurance as Williston does. But even with the benefits factored in, Williston lags behind, Abuhl said.

“Our mantra is let’s attract good quality teachers and let’s keep the teachers that we have,” said Abuhl, who works as a handyman to supplement his income. “To do that, logic would dictate needing at least a competitive starting salary.”

Jonathan Abuhl, pictured Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, in Williston, N.D., works as a handyman to supplement his income as a high school German teacher. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

The latest offer from Williston Public Schools would make it so no teacher would earn less than $36,000, bringing up the pay for beginning teachers, said Tiffany Johnson, a Bismarck attorney who is leading negotiations for the school district.

However, the base rate that is used to calculate teacher pay based on education level and years of service would be set at $33,000, according to the district’s offer.

That offer aims to address concerns from teachers about the ability to attract talent, Johnson said. But district officials say they’ve had good candidates apply for teaching positions, Johnson said.

“Williston has not had any difficulties attracting new teachers,” she said.

For this fall, Williston hired 39 new teachers. Fourteen of those replaced teachers who retired.

The district planned to add another fourth-grade teacher as well, but was unable to find one in time for fall, LaFontaine said.

Oil Patch funding

To keep up with a growing student population and maintain the district’s aging buildings, Williston Public Schools spent more money than it took in last year, and expects to do so again this year, Johnson said.

In the recent legislative session, lawmakers designated Williston, Minot and Dickinson as “hub cities” in the Oil Patch and directed a chunk of the state’s oil revenue to those cities based on a complex formula.

Williston Public Schools is estimated to receive $5 million in hub city money each year of the biennium.

However, next year, 75 percent of that oil revenue will be deducted from what the district would receive through the state funding formula for public schools, said Jerry Coleman, director of school finance at the Department of Public Instruction.

In addition, now that Williston is getting more money as a “hub city,” the district is considered a lower priority when it applies for state energy impact grants.

The district applied for a $600,000 grant to replace a leaky roof on McVay Elementary – a school reopened last year for growing kindergarten and other elementary grades. The grant was denied and the district needs to find other funds to pay for it, LaFontaine said.

The Legislature didn’t come close to addressing the needs of the district, LaFontaine said.

“I hate to say it, but you can’t do much with $5 million, not with the needs we have,” LaFontaine said. “We should have gotten a lot more money for what we’re having to deal with, all the issues.”

Last year, Williston voters rejected a bond referendum that would have increased property taxes to pay for school buildings.

LaFontaine said dollars that are directed at adding portable classrooms or other facilities aim to help teachers by keeping their classrooms from getting overloaded.

“It all ties together,” LaFontaine said. “If we don’t get buildings, then we’ll have to put more kids in classrooms. To me, then that’s not good for teachers, either.”

Winslow emphasizes that teachers are not trying to be greedy, but they want to be able to earn a living wage.

“We’re certainly not trying to get rich. Teachers, we do what we do because this is what we love to do. The ‘aha’ moment when you see a student get it, when there’s that learning moment and you know they understand what you’re explaining to them, that is why we do what we do,” Winslow said. “But at the same time, we have to be able to live and function and do all of the things that a human being should be able to do.”

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