Drilling slump hits school budgets

BATTLEMENT MESA — Administrators didn’t expect students to fill the new Grand Valley Middle School to the brim when the doors first opened this school year.

Neither did they anticipate the middle-schoolers would end up with a lot of elbow room, which turned out to be the case because of the natural gas drilling slowdown of the last year.

Principal Scott Pankow said the school’s enrollment is down about 10 percent from last year at the former St. John’s Middle School, which has been converted to an elementary school.

Altogether, Garfield County School District No. 16, serving the Parachute and Battlement Mesa areas, was down about 187 students at the start of the school year, or about 13 percent, said Superintendent Ken Haptonstall.

“It’s a ton,” Haptonstall of the decline.

It also stands in stark contrast to the sharp growth of about 10 percent a year that Haptonstall said the district experienced in recent years as natural gas development soared in the region.

De Beque School District 49-JT has seen an enrollment drop of 13 students from last year’s total of 164, said Superintendent Marty Lucas.

“It could be worse,” said Lucas.

He is new to the district and said he is not sure the drop is related to the slowdown in oil and gas development. But he hopes that De Beque’s number will be higher come October, when the official enrollment will be submitted to the state. In De Beque, each student results in about $11,000 in state funding for the district.

Haptonstall said his district receives about $7,000 per pupil from the state.

“So it’s a pretty big hit,” he said of the prospect of being down almost 200 students.

Other districts in drilling country are doing better. The enrollment for Meeker School District Re-1 is up about 20 students, Superintendent Doug Pfau said. In Garfield Re-2 School District, which stretches from Rifle to New Castle, enrollment is down 40 students, said spokeswoman Theresa Hamilton. The district has around 5,000 students.

So far, the drilling drop appears to be hitting school enrollment hardest in Parachute, which also suffered some of the worst effects when the region’s oil shale industry boom went bust in the 1980s.

Haptonstall said families have transferred students from his district to places all over the country.

“We’re losing some to Wyoming, some to Texas, some to Grand Junction — kind of everywhere,” he said.

He said the district is seeing big losses in kindergarten through third grade, which probably means younger families who were renting homes have moved away because of job losses.

That would be consistent with what Eric Schmela, president of Battlement Mesa Co., is seeing happen to the rental portion of the company’s business. It has a vacancy rate of about 40 percent for the 1,300 apartments, single-wide units and parcels of land that it rents to people who own their homes in the Battlement Mesa development.

“It think it’s all (because of the loss of) drilling-related work,” he said. “The population I think is significantly less.”

“Certainly it’s a cyclical market. We’ll come back,” Schmela said.

‘The history of the place’

Pankow shares Schmela’s optimism about the region’s ability to recover economically. Pankow was in Palisade High School and his dad was painting houses for a living when the oil shale bust occurred.

“He got laid off, so I remember that those were tough times,” he said.

Pankow then watched the good economic times return to the region thanks to a new energy boom involving natural gas development.

“It’s that ebb and flow, the history of the place,” Pankow said.

Taxes from gas production covered much of the $16 million cost of the new middle school, which is replacing a facility built at the tail end of the oil shale years.

After being forced to house sixth-grade students in modular classrooms last year, district officials made sure the new building would have enough space to accommodate future growth.

It can hold 375 students and was designed to allow expansion to make room for 300 more.

The district expects the school to fill up some day as the local economy recovers, but for now, some 270 students go there, which has resulted in lightly populated classrooms. Although that can be conducive to more effective teaching, district officials are casting a careful eye to the budget implications of an enrollment drop. Haptonstall said the district has managed to maintain full staffing and doesn’t anticipate cutting teachers at this point. Instead, it is relying on cash reserves and cuts that can be made outside the classroom.

Fortunately, he said, the state counts only half of a district’s enrollment drop for funding purposes the first year, and then considers a three-year average for the next five years, which softens the budgetary impacts.

Lucas said the De Beque district intends to keep full staffing this school year, “but we’ll really have to look at the impact for next year” as a result of this fall’s enrollment.

Haptonstall said he’s already seeing more drilling rigs operating in the area.

“But we’re not seeing a lot of families coming in with them right now,” he said.

Hanging on in slow times

Grand Valley Middle School eighth-grader Shania Busby is glad her dad, Scott, managed to remain employed on a local drilling rig despite the slowdown. The Busby family moved to Texas for a while to try to cut living expenses even as Scott continued to work in the area, but family members weren’t happy there and came back. Shania said she didn’t like the heat and humidity and missed going to school in the Parachute area.

“I love it up here. … I have a lot of good friends here,” Shania said before heading to volleyball practice at the end of a recent school day.

Scott Busby said that although he has managed to remain employed during the slowdown, he now works as a driller rather than rig manager. He thinks the drilling slowdown has served as an eye-opener for the region, showing it that the jobs of a lot of others besides rig workers depend on the energy industry.

“I think people around here really just realized how much oil and gas meant to the community.

When it left, everything around here went downhill real quick,” Busby said.


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