- Associated Press - Monday, May 30, 2016

WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) - There’s always a twinge of sadness to see a pivotal figure leave the Williston community, but Dr. Viola LaFontaine dashed about the room to greet everyone who came to provide her with well wishes, with a smile and a hug to ensure her farewell party would be a joyous affair.

Serving as Williston Public School District 1 superintendent for the past 7 years, she successfully mitigated the dynamic new environment with her stoic leadership, but late last December she announced she would not seek to renew her contract, the Williston Herald (https://bit.ly/1TCnB5q ) reported.

“Even though the oil has slowed down, the schools haven’t,” LaFontaine said. “The job is still very demanding.”

After her husband was injured last fall, LaFontaine said she began to feel somewhat guilty about dedicating so much time away from home.

In the wake of the most recent oil boom, it was not uncommon for the district to receive dozens of new students each week. With student population peaking, the space availability within the schools, housing for needed educators became dire as supply was scarce and rent reached astronomical prices.

Feats that would be overwhelming to most instead became an opportunity for LaFontaine’s greatest achievements.

“There was always stability with Viola,” said District 1 board member David Richter. “She never got overly excited when things didn’t go well.”

LaFontaine streamlined the curriculum, which has drastically improved students’ academic success in reading and mathematics, and helped develop creative use of limited facility space to help offset the student growth.

The unique circumstance of an oil boom gave rise to a student population classified as homeless due to living out of RV campers, a common remedy to the housing market during that time. English Language Learner (ELL) students added a new a new dynamic as introduction to English partnered with academic studies, as well.

Foreseeing new schools would be needed as the hustling boomtown began to quiet into a family-oriented city and student enrollment continued to climb, she helped push for a bond referendum that would build a new $68 million high school.

“You have a bunch of constraints and the issues of starting a new school,” said Williston Mayor Howard Klug, who attended her farewell party. “The stability of having a person like her in that position, you always knew everything would be taken care of.”

After the bond was passed, plans were quickly underway to have the school built and the former high school modified into a 5th and 6th grade elementary, granting the other schools room for the K through 4 children and alleviating educators of mounting class sizes.

After her resignation announcement, LaFontaine struggled with what her next move would be. As fate would have it, Mott, North Dakota was seeking a superintendent. She accepted the position and is expected to begin July 1.

“I’m really going to miss working with the people and being a part of the community,” said LaFontaine. “I’ve really fallen in love with Williston. I’m going to miss it but something out there has a greater plan than what I had for myself in life.”

Though the 240 student K through 12 school district will be a slower pace, it is still experiencing many of the concerns LaFontaine has already tackled.

On July 14, shortly after her start date, that district will be seeking a bond referendum to build an $8.5 million elementary that would update the current facility built in 1906.

LaFontaine’s shoes will be difficult to fill but the school board has already selected a candidate that will assume the role.

“It was really close between two candidates,” said District 1 school board member, David Richter. “Viola was really strong with curriculum but (Michael Campbell) is really strong with finances. Curriculum is set and now is a good time to have someone who is strong in finances in these next years.”

LaFontaine has already made trips to Mott and met many of the students of the town. May 31 is the closing date for her new home, and the opening of her next chapter.


Information from: Williston Herald, https://www.willistonherald.com

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