Her raised voice breaking, Jami Ferguson explained to school district leaders that the people of Grant Elementary were like her family.
“We don’t care about the money. We care about our kids,” said Ferguson, a mother to four students at Grant, which could close after this school year.
She was one of around 50 parents sitting in folding chairs and lining the back wall of Grant’s gymnasium Monday night, looking to hear why the school they’ve trusted with their children might close.
They sought answers from Natrona County School District officials, including Superintendent Steve Hopkins and Associate Superintendent Verba Echols.
Two years ago, as the economy took a turn for the worse, the board of trustees asked the school district to cut costs, evaluate all programs and take a look at facilities, Hopkins said. The facility study started in September and finished in mid-November. Among other things, it recommended the closure of Grant and the “disposal” of it and other vacant schools, like North Casper and the old Roosevelt High School.
District officials last week explained that disposal would ideally mean selling the schools but could also mean tearing them down.
Parents learned of the possibility of the closure in an email Thursday afternoon. Hopkins last week stressed that faculty recommended letting parents have the opportunity to break the news to their children.
As parents’ frustration washed over them, district officials stressed that the decision to close Grant was only a recommendation and that nothing was certain yet. The Board of Trustees, a majority of whom attended the meeting, will vote on the proposal Monday.
The officials explained that the parents had two options should the school close: They could go through the enrollment process, in which they would have preference over the rest of Natrona County in selecting a new school, or they could decide to move the soul of the school — students and faculty — to a new building, likely the newly completed Journey Elementary.
Many parents who spoke called for the second option.
“I’ll be voting for the mass move,” Josh Ryle said after the meeting. Ryle works in the energy industry and moved from Arizona to Casper with his wife and 6-year-old daughter.
Sergio Sanchez, who moved from California and whose three children found a home and new friends at Grant, said he was pulling for the mass move. He, like many parents at the meeting, voiced his frustration with the recommendation to close the neighborhood school.
The meeting “was kind of what they want to do, they didn’t listen to our advice,” he said. “’This is what it’s going to be; you like it or not.’”
Some parents, like Josh Ryle’s wife, Stephanie, asked if parents could “band together and save the school” through fundraisers. One parent asked if the district would match whatever donations the parents could pull in.
Hopkins explained that the school would need around $500,000 in repairs. Officials said last week that Grant needed a new roof and foundational work.
“Grant is the highest in Natrona County in need for improvement,” said Michael Jennings, the executive director of human resources and one of the district officials who conducted the study.
Officials told the crowd that the Legislature is not handing out the funds it used to because of the economic downturn and because Natrona County has 500 open elementary seats, an enrollment decline that helped drive the decision to close schools.
“Some strategies that we used in the past (to fund repairs) aren’t available to us now,” Hopkins said.
At times, parents shouted out and talked over each other, raised voices blending together and causing confusion. One question that kept popping up was why Grant had been overlooked for repairs while new schools were built and older schools were remodeled.
“When I look at schools being rebuilt, I can’t help but notice their location,” one parent said.
Officials explained that before the economy started to slip two years ago, the district’s elementary enrollment was going up by more than 150 students per year. So schools being completed now were built to keep up. Now, Hopkins explained, more than 200 elementary school students have left the district, a majority of them in the past nine months.
Kevin Christopherson, the chairman of the board and a Grant alum, stood up from the crowd and took the mic. He told parents that moving to a brand-new school could be a good thing.
“Some things that look bad like your school closing can be a fantastic opportunity,” he said.
‘What on the inside’
One parent responded that children losing the teachers they’ve connected with and the friends they’ve made isn’t a great opportunity.
Ferguson, who said after the meeting that she bawled Thursday when a teacher told her the school may close, said how nice a school is doesn’t matter to her.
“We don’t care about how fancy the school is. We don’t care about how it looks like on the outside. We care about what’s on the inside,” she said, her voice growing emotional.
To many parents, including Ferguson, Principal Shawna Smith is inextricable from the Grant that they want to preserve and protect.
“This is special. This is not something that’s common,” one parent said, explaining that Smith was a primary reason for that.
It was unclear from the meeting whether Smith would follow the school to Journey should parents decide to move en masse. District spokeswoman Tanya Southerland said Tuesday that the district is working closely with Smith but that it was difficult to say where Smith would end up after the reassignment process was complete. Southerland stressed that Smith is involved in the process and is working with Echols.
Smith, who stood by the wall during the meeting and called on questioners by the names of their children, hugged some parents as the meeting stretched toward its second hour and chairs emptied.
Some parents left in a huff, including one who repeatedly questioned why Grant had fallen into disrepair while new schools were built. Others took their children home as bedtimes neared.
One father stood up, his young daughter in his arms, and thanked the officials for answering questions. Then he patted his daughter on the back.
“This one will never be a Grizzly,” he said, referring to Grant’s mascot. “But she’s got a great Grizzly yell.”
His daughter let out a cry, and the crowd burst into applause as the father carried his daughter out the door.