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Parachute Stunned As Firm Bails OutOf Energy Project

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School officials in Parachute, Colo., a town featured in an Education Week article last December on the new boomtowns of the West, said last week they were "quite disappointed" by the surprise announcement that the Exxon Company U.S.A. would immediately shut down its partially completed, multi-billion-dollar oil-shale project in the region.

"There are a lot of bitter and disappointed people here," said Lawrence W. St. John, superintendent of Garfield County School District #16.

Mr. St. John, a lifelong resident of Parachute, has administered a school district in which total enrollment has more than tripled in the past year, growing from 192 last April to 626 as of last week. The district's growth resulted primarily from the thousands of new families who have moved into the region to seek jobs in northwest Colorado's oil-shale industry.

But the worldwide oil glut has, at least for the time being, rendered oil-shale extraction uneconomical, bringing the region's population boom to a temporary halt.

"There is no way for us to assess the full impact of Exxon's pullout," Mr. St. John said. "Our enrollment may drop a bit, but we're still expecting steady growth. Naturally, it probably will not be as rapid as we had previously expected."

The community had planned to construct nine new school buildings in order to accommodate a school population that had been expected to reach 10,000 during the 1990's as a result of the oil-shale industry boom.

Two of those new buildings, one elementary and one middle school, are nearing completion and will be ready for occupancy by August. Mr. St. John said construction plans for the seven remaining buildings will probably be shelved for the time being.

"Most people here have taken the news very stoically," he said. "We held a meeting with our employees the first thing Monday morning to give them an idea of what our plans will be for the next year. We intend to ride this one out."--T.M.

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