Boomtown: School in Eagle Ford Shale swells with newcomers

TILDEN — Every weekday morning, the rumble of buses dropping off students at McMullen County’s only public school gets drowned out by the heavy trucks whizzing by on Texas 16.

Tilden is a small town, and with 235 students in pre-K through 12th grades, the school is small, too — even after enrollment jumped 42 percent in a year and a half.

Outside, students can see the reason: drilling rigs in the distance. At recess, they run, slide and swing at a new playground built with corporate donations, a list brimming with names including Petrohawk Energy, Chesapeake Energy, Rush Truck Centers.

“I don’t know any of these kids, just the ones that are kinfolk,” said Arthur Villareal, 59, finishing breakfast with his son and grandson before a recent morning assembly. “A lot of them are new people that moved in.”

When he graduated in 1971, his senior class of 13 was the largest in the school’s history. His son’s class numbered 24. His grandson’s will be bigger.

“Our town is booming,” chimed fourth-grader Cotton Harris, 10, smiling at the passing trucks. “You just hear them roar by.”

The pursuit of oil and gas in the Eagle Ford Shale has picked up the pace in dozens of formerly quiet rural communities in a wide arc around San Antonio. But nowhere is the impact on schools greater than here, in one of the least-populated school districts in its path.

“That one that came in — it will have to be a bigger bus next year,” McMullen County Independent School District Superintendent Dave Underwood, 36, said over the noise. “Because it’s full.”

The district added a school bus last fall, bringing the total to seven. Some students take hourlong rides from other counties, like 10th-grader Sarah White, 16, whose father transferred her to the 1A district from the much larger Pleasanton ISD in Atascosa County last fall. She gets on a bus at 6:30 a.m..

“In a small town, everyone wants to be friends with everyone,” she said. “I’m also still getting used to more agriculture activities here. We just had a tractor race in the cafeteria. It was kind of strange, but interesting. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Most superintendents of the 22 school districts in the Eagle Ford counties closest to San Antonio point to a lack of housing as the reason their enrollments have grown only slightly, if at all.

An exception is the Frio County community of Dilley, where the school district saw a 7 percent enrollment increase in one year, to 992 students. City Administrator Melissa Gonzalez said contractors have made recent inquiries about building single-family homes.

But there’s a housing crunch in Tilden, too. A key reason more energy industry workers are enrolling their children here is proudly displayed on the school’s marquee: “EXEMPLARY SCHOOL DISTRICT,” the Texas Education Agency‘s highest rating.

Behind the school, McMullen ISD has built nine “teacheridges” over the years, employee cottages with as many as three bedrooms, including two added since 2010. It leases some to students’ families, and John Ray, 51, a pipeline inspector for Hatch Mott MacDonald, is one of the fortunate few.

After five months of house hunting, he was able to move his wife and third-grade daughter from West Monroe, La., into a teacheridge and thinks $600 a month is a good deal.

“It was just hard to find a place, but I didn’t want to live in a trailer for the next couple of years,” Ray said. “If there was more housing here it would probably be filled up as fast as they could build (it). But when this little boom is over, it’ll be a ghost town here.”

Others in Tilden share his assumption that busts inevitably follow drilling booms, but a University of Texas at San Antonio study estimates the Eagle Ford play will drive regional employment — and higher demand for housing and schools — through 2025.

Just 50 more students would max out the Tilden school‘s capacity, Underwood said. There are no immediate plans for new classrooms, but the board has asked voters to approve almost $12 million in bond debt on May 12 to address growth and safety issues, including connecting the school’s two buildings with an enclosed walkway so it can use a single entrance.

The drop-off point for school buses will be moved behind the school, away from traffic, operations manager Dale Patterson said.

Highway fatalities have increased with the traffic. McMullen County had only one in 2009, but there were four in 2010 and three in 2011. Driver fatigue has been the main factor, Department of Public Safety Trooper Clint Walker said.

Periodic sweeps with 22 extra state troopers are targeting commercial vehicle violations in counties affected by the drilling boom “to minimize tragic events happening,” said DPS Cpl. Charlie Ramirez, who oversees patrols in McMullen, Live Oak and Bee counties.

“No traffic accidents with students yet. We’ve been very fortunate, “ Underwood said, crossing his fingers and knocking on a wood classroom door.

The traffic is “crazy,” said Oralia Hasette, 76, a janitor who has worked at the school for two decades.

“There’s a lot of people in town now,” she said, adding, “I like it. At least you can sit down and see cars and trucks passing through.”

Even counting a couple of new restaurants, Tilden has only half a dozen businesses. The older ones have evolved with the times, like Max’s Cafe and Grocery, which offers eight motel rooms and a gift shop.

“Oil drilling is a great thing,” said owner Maximo Quintanilla Jr., 63, who also is a county commissioner. “Overall, it’s made ranchers a lot busier.”

“Gotta make the money while you can, because it ain’t going to be here long,” interjected lunch patron Josh Wood, 23, who works for Macy’s Rentals, which supplies generators to drilling rigs.

“Well, you’ve got to take the good with the bad,” Quintanilla said, glancing out a window at the trucks on Texas 16. “Eagle Ford is a good problem to have.”

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