Frontier Middle School and University Park, Willard and Mountain View elementary schools have been recommended for closure at the end of the academic year in light of falling enrollment brought on by the economic downturn, the Natrona County School District announced Friday.
The schools — all of which housed students this year — are the latest buildings to be closed by the district. In the past year, the district has shuttered Grant Elementary and several other facilities because of budget constraints and students leaving the district.
The district’s board will consider the latest school closures at its meeting at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 23.
Mountain View lost 18 students compared with last year and 83 since 2012-13, one of heaviest losses in the district. Willard actually gained 12 since 2016-17 but is down 28 since 2012-13. University Park has lost 10 since last fall, and Frontier is down 16.
‘Small and inefficient’
District officials said in a press conference Friday night that they chose the four schools because they were “small and inefficient.” For instance, two were small, at capacity and had no room to grow, while Mountain View was significantly below what it could handle and had been losing students steadily since 2012.
Michael Jennings, the district’s executive director of human resources, said that Mountain View, despite its low enrollment, had a principal and administrators, just like a school that was near full capacity. It is inefficient to have an undercapacity school operate with the administrative services of a full facility, when those students could be taught elsewhere, district officials reason.
Jennings said the closure of the schools was driven primarily by the dropping enrollment but that the district’s financial situation also played a role. Natrona County is bracing to lose roughly $12 million in state funds in the coming years as the state grapples with an education funding crisis that could leave Wyoming’s schools in a $530 million hole in 2018 and 2019.
The district has 970 empty elementary seats as a result of the dropping enrollment. Should the board decide to close the four schools, it will account for 970 spots. But, because Frontier is a middle school, there will still be around 200 empty elementary seats in the district.
In addition to the four in-use schools, district officials recommend closing the Special Education Service Center, the already vacant Westwood and North Casper elementary schools and Willow Creek, which closed in 2016.
North Casper and the special education building are both recommended for sale. Frontier is slated just for closure, while officials called for mothballing the remaining buildings.
Frontier currently shares space with the Casper Classical Academy, which is not closing.
When Grant Elementary was closed last year, its students were given priority in choosing new schools. Conveniently, the new Journey Elementary was opening and could absorb Grant’s entire population. About 50 percent of Grant’s kids went there.
Such an option won’t be available next year. But students whose school will close will begin selecting a new school in December, while the open enrollment process will begin for the rest of the district in January.
No layoffs planned
Jennings said the district remains committed to not laying off any teachers. As Natrona County has worked to absorb its share of the state funding woes, officials have said repeatedly that layoffs are the last option and that it will use attrition to avoid them. Should the four schools be closed, “teachers will follow students,” Jennings said, meaning that where needs arise across the district, teachers will be sent.
It’s unclear how much money the district will save in administrative and utility costs should the recommendations be approved. Dennis Bay, the executive director of business services, said a building can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 in maintenance and utilities. Jennings said administrative costs at a full-capacity facility run around $500,000.
Bay said at the press conference that his office had received inquiries about district buildings that may be for sale, but he wasn’t sure of the district’s prospects for selling the facilities. Prior to this announcement, the district had listed Grant and Mills elementaries — which were both closed at the end of last year — for sale. In the winter, it successfully sold the old Roosevelt High School and the Fairgrounds Center; both buildings were recommended for sale in the district’s last round of building and school closures.
That took place in November, when the district decided to close Grant. At that time, condition played a role in Grant’s demise. The school was 94 years old and needed $500,000 in repairs. Jennings said condition played a much more minor role this time. First was the capacity issue, and second was the district’s own budget constraints.
District officials said last week that a Natrona County elementary school would likely be shuttered because of falling enrollment. The district’s elementary enrollment fell by more than 150 students compared to last year, continuing a recent trend. Districtwide, there are 350 fewer elementary students than there were in 2014, and there are currently 970 empty seats in elementary schools here.
For years before the downturn, Natrona County’s elementary enrollment was growing at a steady clip. The district began building new schools — like Journey and the addition to Bar Nunn — to accommodate the growth.
But as the economy slipped, families left Wyoming and enrollment fell. Even as new buildings were completed, the district began to realize that it needed to “right size” its facilities to its students’ needs.
Tanya Southerland, the spokeswoman for the district, said that officials decided to announce the closures on Friday evening so students and staff could have the weekend to absorb the news and discuss it with family.