West Texas' Permian Basin, the country's largest source of crude, is turning Odessa and neighboring Midland into "boomtowns;" the average income of Midland residents is now the second highest in the country, ahead of San Francisco and New York City. But a booming economy can work against some employees. While private employers can pay high school dropouts with no experience $70,000 a year to work on oil fields, a teacher with a college degree and three years' experience earns about $45,000 a year in Midland, and the public sector can't raise wages much.
"You've got truck drivers out there, if they're working full-time and working overtime, they're making upwards of seventy, eighty thousand dollars a year," Superintendent Ryder Warren says. "That's getting close to two of my teachers."
As a result, teachers like Malugani pay New York prices for tiny apartments or camp out in hotels, as rents skyrocket and their classrooms overflow with students. "I hadn't really heard of Odessa, Texas, before. I hadn't been to Texas period," says Malugani. "I had no idea this was happening."
In Midland and Odessa, every realtor has a wait list and hotel rooms can be hundreds of dollars a night. When Malugani moved to town in August, she found a hotel for $90 a night, but it was so filthy she slept in all her clothes, and moved the next day to a $180-a-night Super 8. Malugani finally landed a one-bedroom apartment for $990 a month, and the rate has already increased to $1,115 -- $1,265 if you were to pay month-to-month. That's half the take-home pay of a teacher like Malugani, who says her starting monthly salary, once you take out taxes, insurance and retirement, is between $2,400 and $2,500.
The Ector County Independent School District, where Odessa sits, has added 1,500 kids since April last year, according to superintendent Hector Mendez -- the equivalent of four elementary schools. Neighboring Midland Independent School District has 1,800 more students now than when the last school year began. Malugani's sixth-grade class has 29 students, but with no substitute teachers, the classes swell every time a teacher is out sick. Around 30 times last year, the art teacher had to close down the art department to substitute in other classes. And that isn't likely to change soon.
In 2011, Texas lawmakers slashed public school financing by roughly $5.4 billion over two years, which swallowed up millions for Midland and Ector's budgets. Times got so desperate that Midland residents voted for a $163 million school bond last month -- the largest bond in the county's history. Ector County voted for its own bond of $129 million.
Most of the money will go to build six new elementary schools, but it will take years for that relief to come. "I don't know what it can get to without it being a safety issue," Malugani says, noting that there aren't enough desks in one class, forcing students to share tables at the back.
Under Texas law, there must be at least one teacher for every 22 students between Kindergarten and 4th grade, unless the class receives a waiver from the government. The Ector County School District secured waivers for 168 classrooms this year.
Shortages of custodians, lunch room staff, bus drivers, and maintenance workers have forced other kinds of creative changes. "Anyone with a license like that and can drive a truck like that can make a lot more money in the oil fields than working part-time for me," explains Superintendent Warren, whose district is 35 bus drivers short.
A False Sense Of Reality
The dropout rate has actually declined during this boom, thanks to new strategies like a flexible scheduling option, which allows students to go to work during the day. But teachers like Malugani worry that West Texas children are learning about the world from a very curious vantage, one of quick fortunes and flowing money, as well as sharpened divides between haves and have-nots.
When Malugani asks her class what they want to be when they grow up, the boys either say an NFL player or an oil field worker. Only in a place like Odessa, after all, would you find a pumpjack on school property, right by the playground. Malugani urges students to focus on a trade, such as mechanic, which won't be subject to booms and busts. "They don't realize that [oil work is] not permanent, it's not a secure job," says Malugani.
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