Crowd wowed as new Williston rec center opens

Kids try out the “flow rider” wave simulator at the Williston Area Recreation Center during the center’s grand opening on Friday, March 28, 2014. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – More than 2,500 people checked out the new Williston Area Recreation Center on Friday during the first two hours it was open, from families with small children to oilfield workers still in their coveralls.

The crowd that gathered on indoor tennis courts for an opening ceremony got louder and louder as speeches continued, reflecting the community’s eagerness for more recreation opportunities.

“We’ve been needing this for so long,” said Williston resident Crystal Boerschig, a mother of three.

Some in attendance scrambled to try out the golf simulator or get in line for the “flow rider” wave simulator, while others took time to tour each feature of the 236,000-square-foot center.

“Everything is just insane, big,” said Trevor Jeannotte, 24, who tried out a pitching simulator that major league teams have. “We needed something around here to keep everyone entertained.”

Many said they were overwhelmed as they took in the new facility, which is not only big, but features small details that add to the wow factor.

The waterpark has a northwest North Dakota theme, with Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers represented, along with a decorative oil derrick and natural gas flares.

Tiles picturing local fish, such as paddlefish and perch, can be found at the bottom of the pools – two of each to reflect the facility’s nickname, the ARC. Real fossils from northwest North Dakota that are 35 million to 95 million years old will be encased throughout the water park.

The center has a teen lounge with a bubble hockey game that is customized to represent players from the University of North Dakota versus Williston State College. A spinning room features an outdoor mural and high-definition projection screens.

The child care center, where parents can drop their kids off while they work out, has an animal mural that allows kids to color on the wall. It also has two-way mirrors so parents can check on their kids.

Even the locker rooms are noteworthy, with special dryers so swimmers don’t have to bring home a wet suit.

The facility, which is on the campus of Williston State College, has free admission through Monday night and is expected to be packed.

“I haven’t seen this many happy people in this community in five years,” said Larry Grondahl, former Williston Park Board president.

The $76 million facility is the largest park district-owned indoor recreation center in the country.

“What a fantastic place you have,” said Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who spoke during the grand opening. “I’m not sure across the state if people really realize what you’ve done here.”

Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky will swim the ceremonial first lap in the Olympic-sized pool Saturday. The E.J. Hagan, MD Natatorium is named after Ledecky’s grandfather, the late Edward Hagan, whose legacy in Williston includes pushing for the construction of the city’s first indoor pool in 1967.

Ledecky, who won the 800-meter freestyle during the 2012 Summer Olympics, will give autographs at 10:15 a.m. and participate in a dedication ceremony at 11 a.m. Saturday.

Williston residents voted in November 2011 to approve a 1 percent sales tax, with half being used to pay for a bond for the new center and half to support other park district operations. About $10.4 million has been paid toward the bond through December.

In addition to sales tax revenue, the facility will be supported through membership fees and student fees collected from Williston State College.

For more information, go to www.willistonparks.com or call (701) 577-9272.

Man charged in Williston homicide

WILLISTON, N.D. – Prosecutors here have charged a man with murder in connection with the death of a man whose body was found east of Williston under a mattress.

Williston police believe Tovias Cerna Carrillo, 48, shot and killed Juan L. Palacios, 51, on Jan. 18 or 19 in Williston, court records say. Palacios had been reported as a missing person and his last known location was a Williston trailer court.

A body believed to be Palacios was found by authorities 13 miles east of Williston on N.D. Highway 1804, Williston police said in a news release.

Carrillo was charged Wednesday in Northwest Judicial District Court with murder, a Class AA felony.

Williams County prosecutors also charged Carrillo this week with two counts of terrorizing, both Class C felonies. Court records allege that Carrillo threatened to kill Pablo Ramon Figueroa on or about Dec. 9 in Williston and threatened to kill Oscar Nunez between Jan. 24 and 25 in Williston.

Carrillo is being held in the Williams County Jail on $1 million bond.

Williston Police Detective David Peterson declined to comment further on the case.

An attorney has not been listed for Carrillo.

Escaped inmate remains loose in Williston

Preston Sonstegaard

WILLISTON, N.D. — Authorities here are asking residents to make sure their homes, garages, campers and sheds are locked as an escaped inmate remains on the loose.

Preston Sonstegaard, who was being held at the Williams County Correctional Center on probation revocation charges, escaped early Tuesday while being treated at the Mercy Medical Center emergency room in Williston.

Wednesday morning, a man gave Sonstegaard a ride to the 700 block of 18th Street East in Williston, the Williams County Sheriff’s Office said.

The man found out who Sonstegaard was and reported to police he was in the area, the Williams County Sheriff’s Office said.

Sonstegaard left on foot from there. Officers searched the area and were unable to locate Sonstegaard. He is now reported to be wearing a baggy green sweatshirt and baggy blue jeans. Sonstegaard, 25, is 5-foot-6, 125 pounds and has blue eyes.

The public is asked to immediately dial 911 if they see Sonstegaard.

Williston inmate sought after escaping

Preston Sonstegaard

WILLISTON, N.D. — An inmate escaped custody of the Williams County Correctional Center while being treated at the Mercy Medical Center emergency room in Williston shortly before 2 a.m. today, authorities said.

Preston Sonstegaard, who was being held on probation revocation charges, was last seen wearing black and white striped jail pants, no shoes and no shirt, the Williams County Sheriff’s Office said.

Sonstegaard is a registered sex offender who is listed as low-risk, according to the state’s sex offender registry. He was convicted in Williams County of continual sexual abuse of a child in 2009.

He is about 25 years old, 5-foot-6, 125 pounds and has blue eyes. The public is asked to immediately dial 911 if they see Sonstegaard.

Williston moves forward with temporary ban on mobile businesses

WILLISTON, N.D. – City commissioners here unanimously approved the first reading of an ordinance Tuesday that would establish a six-month moratorium on new mobile businesses.

Planning and zoning staff members requested the moratorium so a committee can develop guidelines to govern the businesses.

“We keep getting more and more pressure for these,” said Planning Administrator Kent Jarcik. “There are nuances to them.”

Two existing businesses, a mobile chiropractor and a mobile veterinarian, will be exempt from the moratorium while the guidelines are developed. Commissioners indicated they don’t intend to put anyone out of business, but develop an ordinance that is workable.

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.”

Williston government: Meaty issues require big commitment

WILLISTON, N.D. – My first lesson on reporting in the Oil Patch: Be sure to eat before going to a city or county meeting.

Meetings in the rapidly growing communities can last late into the evening, and often those leaders are back in the same room for committee meetings the following morning.

When I heard Williston, the fastest-growing micropolitan area in the nation, was asking for volunteers to fill an upcoming vacancy on the city commission, I was skeptical.

The outgoing commissioner, Brent Bogar, who is moving to Bismarck, said Williston City Commission meetings lasted 45 minutes when he became a commissioner in 2007.

But after oil activity picked up, discussions about new housing developments, expanding the city’s airport and water treatment plant and other issues related to rapid growth made the meetings last for hours. And hours.

Bogar said his longest meeting went until 1 a.m. After that, the commission moved its meeting time earlier to 6 p.m.

Commissioners discussed going to three meetings a month, but have kept it to two.

But they often refer complex issues, such as new requirements for temporary crew camps, to committees, adding more meetings to their schedules. And many also attend planning and zoning commission and county meetings.

At one joint city and county meeting, the debate about a truck bypass route was expected to be so lengthy that the chairman ordered a meat and cheese tray to pass around so they could get through it.

Despite the huge time-commitment, nine Williston residents who were nominated to fill Bogar’s term on the commission interviewed for the job.

Mayor Ward Koeser said the candidates were qualified and each would have brought something different to the table.

“It was a very healthy sign for the community to have that many good candidates,” Koeser said.

Commissioner Howard Klug, who participated in the interviews, said the majority of the candidates said they’d be interested in running for election in June if they weren’t selected.

“We should have an interesting election in eight months,” Klug said.

Koeser also will be stepping down in June and Williston will elect its first new mayor in 20 years.

Bogar, credited with leading the city’s involvement with the Western Area Water Supply Project and planning for an airport expansion or relocation, said he’s not leaving because of  the city’s challenges. He’s starting a new business to provide information technology consultation for banks, and the business needs to be centrally located in Bismarck.

City commissioners unanimously appointed Chris Brostuen to fill the remainder of Bogar’s term.

Brosteun, assistant general manager for Mountrail-Williams Electric Cooperative, said he’s looking forward to helping the city move forward.

“I look at it as an honor,” he said.

Brostuen was given a gift: a thick binder with documents related to the city’s next budget, which proposes to add another 38 city employees.

Perhaps the city should throw in a meat and cheese tray.

Cantor talks farm bill during N.D. oil tour

Rep. Kevin Cramer, left, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor speak during a press conference Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, at Target Logistics Bear Paw Lodge in Williston, N.D. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – In the middle of a crew camp that houses North Dakota oil workers, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor got an earful about agriculture.

Cantor, a Republican from Virginia, toured the Bakken on Wednesday to see North Dakota’s energy production firsthand, but he also talked one-on-one with Cando farmer Gene Nicholas about the state’s other leading industry.

Nicholas, a retired state legislator, said he came away from the discussion with confidence that a farm bill “that we can live with” will be passed this year.

The Senate has passed a farm bill that deals with farm programs as well as trimming some funding from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.

The House has passed a bill just dealing with farm programs and some House Republicans have called for huge cuts to food stamps — which has been a key sticking point.

“They’re working hard on coming up with some middle ground on the food stamp portion of it,” said Nicholas, a Republican. “He stressed that he’s had calls from people that did not support it in the last go around that would support it now.”

Cantor’s visit was closed to the media except for a press conference in which Cantor took three questions.

During the press conference, Cantor said Speaker of the House John Boehner will appoint members of a conference committee on the farm bill in September, after passing a bill dealing with food stamps.

“We in the House expect to move a nutrition title out of the House,” Cantor said. “That title will reflect the reform agenda that we’ve been about in the nutrition program.”

Nicholas said he emphasized to Cantor that a permanent farm bill would give the industry some stability so the rules aren’t always changing for farmers and ranchers.

“If we could put a permanent farm bill in place, I think that would be extremely beneficial to all of rural America,” Nicholas said.

Cantor, hosted by Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., met with energy industry and community leaders at a crew camp in Williston, toured a drilling site and other oilfield locations in the Bakken and met with North Dakota Petroleum Council members in Watford City.

North Dakota’s Democratic Party issued a statement Tuesday calling Cantor the “grim reaper” of the farm bill and criticized Cramer for inviting him to North Dakota.

“If you dusted the knife that gutted the farm bill for prints, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s fingerprints would be all over it,” said Bob Valeu, North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party Chairman.

In his visit, Cantor praised North Dakota’s approach to energy development and said the country needs to follow the state’s example and adopt a national energy policy.

“I hope to be able to tell the president that there’s a lot for him to learn here as far as energy production here in America,” Cantor said. “North Dakota seems to have gotten it right.”

Cramer said although the Obama administration talks about an “all-of-the-above” energy policy, it seems to only support everything but fossil fuels.

“All-of-the-above doesn’t mean just everything above the ground. It also means stuff under the ground,” Cramer said.

Oil boom schools: Williston adds 350 students; Watford up 160

Librarian Diane Luttschwager reads to a class at Hagan Elementary School in Williston, N.D., on Monday, Aug. 26, 2013, on the first day of school. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – Schools in the booming towns of Williston and Watford City welcomed hundreds of new students Monday.

Early enrollment estimates in Williston show a student body of about 3,150, an increase of about 350 students since the school year ended last May, said Superintendent Viola LaFontaine.

Much of the growth is in the elementary grades because many families moving to North Dakota’s Oil Patch tend to have young children. Williston now has about 300 students in 15 sections of Kindergarten.

Enrollment numbers are expected to go up and down throughout the year as many families move in and out of the community, LaFontaine said.

McKenzie County School District opened a new elementary school this fall and it’s already full, said Superintendent Steve Holen.

“We’re using every classroom we built to the max,” Holen said.

McKenzie County had 1,027 students on its first day of school Monday, up 162 students or nearly 19 percent more students than the district ended with last May.

“These numbers are still probably in flux,” Holen said.

Officials in Watford City are already beginning to plan for another building. A study projects that the school will have 1,622 students by the 2017-18 school year, and this year’s numbers are ahead of those projections, Holen said.

The district hired 20 teachers, counselors and other staff members, Holen said.

In Williston, the district hired 39 teachers to fill several positions left vacant by retirements, as well as new positions.

Williston Public Schools, which had prepared for a larger influx of students a year ago, accommodates the growing enrollment by renting 32 modular classrooms. The district also reopened McVay Elementary last fall, a school that had been closed for more than a decade due to declining enrollment.

The district has aimed to bring on additional classrooms to prevent class sizes from getting too large, LaFontaine said. The largest elementary classes this year are some sections of fourth through sixth grades with 25 students, she said.

“We wouldn’t want to go larger than 25,” LaFontaine said.

In Stanley, the district has 616 students this year, said Superintendent Tim Holte. The district ended last school year with 575 students.

Stanley recently added more elementary and high school classrooms to accommodate the additional students, Holte said.

Faces of the Boom: A match made in the Oil Patch

Chris Kamph, left, and Amanda Propper, pictured Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013, in Williston, N.D., met in North Dakota on a blind date and will be married in Williston this week. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – Amanda Propper was so nervous for her first date in North Dakota, she had her friends wait across the street.

“I didn’t want to go. I hadn’t dated anybody up here,” said Propper, who moved from Georgia to Watford City about 1½ years ago. “That wasn’t in the plan. I didn’t want to date, I just worked.”

But the 36-year-old found she had much in common with Chris Kamph, an oilfield electrician from Idaho she met through a mutual friend.

Both have teenage children from previous marriages and moved to North Dakota’s Oil Patch to pursue high-paying job opportunities.

Ever since that blind date in Watford City last November, the two have been practically inseparable. They will be married on Saturday at Williston’s Spring Lake Park.

“We’re blessed, we really are,” Propper said.

Kamph, 34, who has worked in Williston since 2008, is an electrical foreman for Precision Drilling. He works about 80 hours a week to monitor 10 drilling rigs in the Bakken, in addition to being on call once a month to respond to issues that arise at the company’s 128 rigs across the country.

Kamph said he’s grateful for the job opportunities in North Dakota.

“They’re wonderful,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity here to get a good head start in life.”

Propper’s brother worked as a welder in Watford City and recruited her to work as a welder helper. Propper, who had done welding work in her early 20s, initially said she was too old to do that again.

Then she learned the month-long job would pay $10,000.

“I said, ‘Maybe I’m not too old,’” Propper recalled.

That month led Propper to a position working in the office of the company, Saddle Butte Pipeline. She enjoyed it, but after meeting Kamph, she was always driving back and forth from Watford City to Williston.

Propper, who had never seen snow before moving to North Dakota, decided driving on U.S. Highway 85 during the winter was too tough, and she moved to Williston in January. She now works part-time managing the Williston Senior Apartments and plans to go back to school to pursue a nursing degree.

Kamph has two children and Propper has three, ages 13, 14, 15, 16 and 18. All five will live in Williston.

“It’s like we’re the Brady Bunch,” Propper said.

Finding a house in Williston, especially one big enough for the whole family, was challenging. For a few months, six of the family members lived in a three-bedroom condo. But even in the tight space, the two families blended well together.

“Our children really got along. That was amazing,” Propper said. “A family that united well, that’s for sure.”

They moved into a new house a few months ago and recently finished the basement so everyone will have a bedroom. The family plans to live in Williston for several years, likely long enough for the kids to finish high school. The couple says they’d eventually like to move to the Oregon coast, where they plan to take their honeymoon.

Family members are flying in from around the country to attend Saturday’s wedding. Propper plans to sing the Etta James hit “At Last” during the ceremony.

“She’s the most wonderful person I’ve ever met,” Kamph said.