Drilling boosting UL schools

MORRISTOWN – Looking out his office window, Union Local Schools Superintendent Doug Thoburn sees a new hotel under construction and a campground full of pipeliners – all because of the Marcellus and Utica shale natural gas boom taking place in east Ohio.

“People in the industry are telling us, ‘Fasten your seat belt because there is a lot more coming,'” he said. “It is really an exciting time.”

In late 2011, the district leased the 105 acres at the its campus to XTO Energy, a wholly owned subsidiary of global oil giant Exxon Mobil, thus securing a $519,750 check. The contract will yield Union Local 19 percent of production royalties if XTO eventually extracts the district’s gas.

The district used the $519,750 to purchase two school buses and new radio systems for all buses, repair the running track at the football stadium and repay loans.

Now, the district has another lease agreement, this time with Rice Energy for a 50 percent share of about 36 acres at the former Bethesda school. Treasurer Janet Hissrich said this agreement will pay a 20 percent royalty for any future drilling in addition to the $112,000 lease payment.

“I do know we need a new plow truck,” Hissrich said regarding plans for the Rice lease money.

Neither agreement will allow Rice or XTO to place equipment or pipelines along the school district’s surface property. Most Marcellus and Utica shale wells are drilled more than a mile deep into the earth vertically, then turned horizontally to reach the valuable pockets of gas and oil.

As Thoburn and Hissrich await the potential financial windfalls that would come from drilling royalties, the industry’s impact on the district can be seen directly across Ohio 149. Construction in ongoing on the new 76-room Days Inn & Suites, while the nearby pipeliner campground remains close to capacity.

“We have a bus that goes up there,” Thoburn said of the campground. “We have never had any issues there that I am aware of.”

Just down the road, the new Pilot Flying J travel center opened late last year, while plans are in the works to build yet another hotel across Ohio 149 from the travel center.

“Personally, I don’t have any more concerns about a hotel being built across the street than I have about being this close to” Interstate 70, Thoburn said. “We are anxious to see how these developments will affect our tax base.”

The school district that serves communities such as Morristown, Belmont, Bethesda, Flushing, Holloway, Jacobsburg and Lafferty eliminated some teaching positions over the past several years amid budget constraints. The high school has not taught any foreign language aside from Spanish for several years, but the school offers some classes, such as home economics and agricultural science, that neighboring school districts no longer teach.

Thoburn said the district has seen a slight increase in enrollment over the past couple of years, much of which he attributes to the influx of oil and natural gas industry employees. Some of these students are the children of pipeliners who will likely move with their parents when they are finished working in the area, while Thoburn said other new students are likely to stay in the district.

“My goal is to give any student who walks through our doors the best possible education we can give them, regardless of how long they are going to be with us,” he said.

Acknowledging the Upper Ohio Valley is still in the “early stages” of the oil and gas growth, Thoburn said he is “cautiously optimistic.”

“We hope that we start to see an influx of business and activity that will allow the area to expand. That would help the whole Ohio Valley by providing more opportunities for young people to get jobs in this area,” Thoburn said.