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Ryan Bakken, Forum Communications, Published September 09 2012

Grafton schools rebound, thanks to oil boom

GRAFTON, N.D. – After 40-plus years of enrollment decline, Grafton Public Schools’ numbers are on a steep rise.

As is the case with growth elsewhere in North Dakota, much of the credit is going to the Oil Patch, even though it’s hundreds of miles away.

Grafton’s first-day enrollment was 895 students, 62 more than a year ago. Every grade had a hike, with the biggest increases in kindergarten (81 students) and first grade (75), which bodes well for the future, Superintendent Jack Maus notes.

This is big news here, as Grafton’s enrollment had steadily eroded from its peak of 1,770 in 1967-68 to 812 in 2010-11. The average annual student loss during that stretch was 20 students.

However, after experiencing a modest increase a year ago, enrollment has bounced back big-time. With funding from the state at about $4,000 per student, the enrollment increase means an additional $250,000 for the school district.

“The state funding is a big thing for us,” Maus said. “The other big thing is that we’ve turned around the enrollment trend.”

Jobs a key factor

The hiked enrollment is linked to an increase in jobs locally, many of them supplied by Diverse Energy Systems, which makes storage tanks for the oil sites. Formerly known as Lean Technologies, Diverse began 2012 with 30 employees and now has 60. Manager Duane Jonasson said the company expects to employ 100 by the end of the year.

“We’re so busy recruiting people that I haven’t taken the time to ask how many kids they have,” Jonasson said. “But working here is more attractive than out west, where you’re renting a couch for $400 a month.

“We’re able to attract a more dependable workforce here because the cost of living is so much less.”

Diverse built more than 100 of the 17,000-gallon tanks in August, with demand still growing, said Jonasson, a former economic development director for Grafton and Walsh County. The company’s welders work 57.5 hours per week, earning $16 to $18 per hour.

Maus said some local residents commute to the oil fields for work and leave their families in Grafton. That opens up their previous jobs in Grafton for newcomers.

“Our enrollment increase is all about the North Dakota economy,” he said. “People are coming here to find work.

“We’ve always had a migrant population here. Now more are coming back and staying because of the work available.”

Housing incentives

Another factor is the Grow Grafton campaign, which offers up to $20,000 for new home construction. Funded by local business Marvin Windows, Grow Grafton’s incentives have contributed to 36 homes being built since 2006.

“What we’ve found is that the $20,000 is good for a down payment, which helps people get into a new home,” City Administrator Nick Ziegelman said. “It’s tough to build a new house for less than $150,000 these days.

“They move up a step, and that opens up their entry-level home for someone else. With this and new employers like Diverse Energy, our hope is to continue to grow.”

Julian Wangler, executive director of the regional economic development organization, said the school enrollment is a combination of several factors.

“Grafton has done several things with housing,” he said. “Manufacturing has increased some and become more diverse. And there’s way more money being handled in the agriculture sector.”

Need to add staff

Maus said no additional teachers were hired, but several support staff workers were added because of the student growth. The kindergarten classrooms have 20 students, with the preferred number being 16, he said.

“We discussed adding teachers, but this all happened so late that we decided to go with aides instead,” he said.

Ryan Bakken writes for the Grand Forks Herald