In Energy-rich Western Boomtowns, School Systems and Problems Grow Daily

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The rapid growth of the energy industry in several Western states is producing overnight changes reminiscent of the Gold Rush days. A story in the Nov. 16 issue of Education Week examined one turn-of-the-century school that has thus far escaped much of the ferment. In the neighboring small town of Parachute, Colo., however, education is undergoing rapid transformation. This is the second of two articles.

By Tom Mirga

Around the turn of the century, a pair of land speculators coaxed the city fathers here to re-name this dusty western Colorado town "Grand Valley." Their intent, it's said, was to cash in on the population "boom" that was taking place some 60 miles southwest in Grand Junction, a bustling trading center located at the confluence of the Gunnison and Grand (now Colorado) Rivers.

The ruse may have lured some settlers from the East away from their intended point of arrival, but not many. The town eventually re-adopted its former name and its small-town ways, its population never growing much larger than 300. Until about six months ago, that is.

Today, traffic on Route 6, a two-lane highway that bisects the small city, is chronically choked by a procession of semi-trailers, dump trucks, and bulldozers. This caravan rumbles through town every working day, raising a cloud of fine brown powder that hangs over the street like fog, covering everything that does not move with a layer of dust in a matter of minutes.

Brown dust and bulldozers are not the only new additions to the primarily barren landscape surrounding the town. Row upon row of neatly spaced, identical mobile homes have popped up on a site about a mile from the city proper.

They represent the temporary lodgings of an army of approximately 3,000 construction workers, engineers, businessmen, and their families who are attempting to convert Parachute from an out-of-the-way town on a lonely highway to the capital of Colorado's booming shale-oil industry.

That conversion, which would boost the city's population to at least 25,000, is sched-uled to be completed by 1986.

Parachute is one of the more dramatic examples of a new generation of boomtowns that are sprouting up like weeds in the valleys and on the mesas of the western slope of the Rockies. Its development parallels to one degree or another that of an estimated 300 towns and cities located along a 750-mile-wide belt that stretches from Idaho and Montana southward to Arizona and New Mexico.

Within that belt lies a great percentage of the nation's energy and mineral reserves. Colorado, for example, contains 80 percent of the country's richest oil-shale deposits, about half of which lie in the mountains ringing Parachute.

The mining, milling, and refining of those resources has funneled billions of dollars into these small Western communities, reviving what in many cases were stagnant or declining economies.

More than a million persons have migrated into these communities during the last decade along with the money, according to U.S. Cen-sus Bureau statistics. Many of them come from economically beleaguered Northeastern states, lured by the prospect of jobs and a storybook life in ''the wide-open spaces."

The census bureau statistics indicate that the most striking feature of this new wave of immigration is its youthfulness. While the median age of the nation's population has risen over the last decade, the median age of Western-state residents has remained stable or, in some cases, has declined.

Demographers predict that this pattern of growth could have a double-barreled effect on the region's schools. Rapid population growth has already stretched many Western school districts close to the breaking point. But the problem is compounded by the fact that most of the new residents are in the prime of their child-bearing years.

It is a situation that Lawrence W. St. John, a lifelong Parachute resident and superintendent of Garfield County School District #16, says he has been trying to prepare for and to cope with for the last year and a half.

"When schools closed last June, the district's total enrollment stood at 192 students. When they re-opened at the end of August that figure was up to about 400, and by early October it had already reached 452," Mr. St. John says.

"We've been told to expect our enrollment to double by next September, and to double again the year after that," he continues.

The school district's total enrollment, he predicts, could reach 10,000 during the 1990's if the region's fledgling shale-oil industry continues growing.

"We would go from being one of the smallest to one of the biggest school districts in the state," Mr. St. John says. "It's a bit spooky, isn't it?"

Judith Baxter, a research assistant at the University of Denver's Center for Boomtown Research, says that many boomtowns find it difficult or impossible to keep pace with the rate of change in their communities.

Parachute, she says, provides a good example of the strains a small town experiences during the transformation from a predominantly rural to an urban environment:

Rents in the city have trebled in the last year, forcing a large percentage of the young-adult population to double- and triple-up in single-family homes.

A small "ghetto" of tents, campers, vans, and makeshift lean-tos has sprung up along the banks of nearby Parachute Creek. The community has no running water, electricity, or hookups to city sewage facilities.

Last summer, the city, after suffering through an abnormally dry winter, ran out of water. An emergency hookup to a nearby industry's water supply prevented any serious mishaps from occurring.

Some longtime Parachute residents complain that police protection has become inadequate. "A few nights ago I saw two guys fighting in the street, one of them swinging a chain, and there was no one to stop them," said one resident. "Few people get arrested, and even if they do, they have to take the guy out to the Glenwood Springs jail, 45 miles away." That facility, it turns out, is already filled to capacity.

Societal problems like those, Ms. Baxter says, are mirrored in many boomtown schools.

"Delinquency tends to increase, as does drug and alcohol abuse," she says. "Social rules in the schools and the community appear to break down. In the old community, socialization of children and discipline was much more informal. If you saw the kids next door getting into trouble, you could take matters into your own hands. But after the boom, you probably dont even know who your neighbors are, and youre less likely to interfere," she continues. "During the gap between the breakdown of old social rules and the takeover of discipline by the police, kids get away with murder."

Lottie Rosette, who has taught school for 20 years in Rifle, about 16 miles northeast of Parachute, echoes Ms. Baxter's description.

"Before, you practically knew everybody in town," Ms. Rosette says. "If a child came down with a fever, and you couldn't get in touch with a mother or father, you knew how to find the child's grandparents, uncles, and aunts. But now, you don't even know who's who in town, much less know where they work."

According to Jeffrey H. Hatter, principal of Esma Lewis Elementary School in Rifle, many of the school's new students come from families of construction workers who constantly travel from one work site to another. The transient nature of these students, he says, presents an unusual educational stumbling block.

"It's almost like a revolving door here," Mr. Hatter laments. "Last week we picked up 12 new children, but we lost 10 at the same time. This week we've already picked up three new students, but we lost one.

"We have kids here in the first grade who've been in five or six schools already," he continues. "As soon as you can identify their needs, their strengths, and weaknesses, and get ready to help them, boom--they're gone."

To compound the problem, says Mr. Hatter, a large percentage of the new people enrolling their children in the schools do not have phones, making it difficult or impossible for educators to contact parents.

"For example, we had a kid a little while ago who came down with a 102-degree temperature, but there was no way for us to get in touch with his parents." he says. "Another kid broke his arm, and same thing happened."

Cyndy Kaufmann, principal of the Grand Valley School in Parachute, says she has encountered similar problems.

"Today, for example, we just got three new students. And as far as I can tell, we might have picked up a few more just since we started talking," she says.

The school, Ms. Kaufmann says, has been told to expect a large enrollment increase in December because an enormous contingent of construction workers is moving into the area from Texas.

"It's nice to know things like that in advance," she explains. "For example, it could turn out that the group will be top-heavy with third graders, and we'd need to warn our third-grade teachers. Planning is crucial to this system, otherwise we'd be innundated."

Part of that planning, she says, included the revamping of the school's registration procedures.

"Registration was handled in an informal manner here before, primarily because there were so few new enrollments every year," Ms. Kaufmann explains. "But now when a parent registers child, we tell them that the child shouldn't attend classes the very first day, and that it would be best for them to come back tomorrow. All too often in the past a new student would come in and there would be no place for him to sit or no books for him to use.

"Now, the teacher can prepare the class in advance and let the kids know a new student is coming," she continues. "We want to make sure that the new students feel welcome."

Providing adequate classroom space and hiring new teachers are two of the most serious problems faced by boomtown school administrators, according to Ms. Baxter.

Financing new construction in many of the cities is difficult, she explains, because of cash-flow problems. "Money is a big problem because a huge portion of the cost of providing services falls directly on the local governments," she explains. "A lot of the new people aren't property owners, and those who are generally don't have to pay taxes for a long time."

Some teachers, Ms. Baxter adds, think twice about relocating to a boomtown because salaries often do not keep pace with rapid cost-of-living increases in the area.

"Transportation of goods and services to these remote areas costs quite a bit," she says. "Everybody has a hard time keeping afloat, and teachers are quite often affected the most."

A related problem, Ms. Baxter says, is retaining staff and students. Teachers often opt to quit the profession in favor of higher-paying jobs with nearby energy-related industries. And those jobs also draw away maintenance personnel and many students who drop out to take them, she adds.

But in Parachute, at least, financing construction is one problem school officials have no worries about, according to Mr. St. John. Exxon and Union Oil of California, the two firms building shale-oil plants in the Parachute area, have agreed to pay the construction costs of nine new schools for the school district.

Under the terms of the agreement, which Mr. St. John says is the first of its kind in the nation, the buildings will be leased to the school district for $1 per year.

The school board, he explains, will have an option to buy the buildings. "But, if the plants close down for whatever reason," he adds, "we get our money back and ownership of the buildings reverts back to the companies."

Other school districts in Colorado affected by energy developments, Mr. St. John adds, can finance new school construction with grants that are drawn from a state-controlled trust fund that was created when the federal government leased massive land tracts to the energy companies several years ago.

Other states, most notably Montana, have attempted to ease the impact of energy development on boomtowns by exacting severance taxes on the purchase of minerals and other resources that are exported from the state. Much of the revenue generated by those taxes finds its way back to school districts affected by rapid population growth.

With the energy industry footing the bill for school construction in Parachute, officials can focus on the human side of the education boom. And Mr. St. John says, pointing to a stack of resumes on his desk, that despite the competition from industry-related jobs, he has had no trouble locating applicants.

And students, he says, are urged by indus-try representatives during regularly sponsored guest lectures to stay in school, get a diploma (and even continue their education in order to land high-paying white-collar positions) rather than to drop out to take a job with their firm.

Although energy-related development has caused a tremendous amount of social upheaval in the cities it has affected, most boomtown residents, says Mr. St. John, feel that the benefits have outweighed the costs.

"Sure, we're losing a way of life here, but the changes are inevitable," he says. "The economy has been so depressed here that, if oil shale hadn't come on the scene, I'm certain that our tax base couldn't have supported the school district much longer. And when a town loses its schools, it takes the heart right out of a community."

The revival of Parachute and many other boomtowns like it, however, is totally based on the belief that untried energy technologies like shale-oil extraction will become profitable enough for full-scale development. And even Mr. St. John admits that the oil companies that have located in the nearby mountains cannot give him a 100-percent guarantee that the current boom will not "go bust."

"I don't see any way that the companies can turn back now, considering all of the the progress that's already taken place and all of the money that they've already spent," he says. "They say that there's enough shale in those hills to last more than 100 years.

"Despite all that, there's no question that oil shale is a finite resource, and one day all of it will be expended," Mr. St. John continues. "Right now the prospects look good for continued development. But then again, the companies could all move out of here tomorrow. It's just a risk we have to take."

Vol. 01, Issue 14

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