More than a year ago, Derreice Bretz bought a house in Mills across from the elementary school named for the small town. Her daughter would be starting kindergarten in the fall of 2017, and Derreice wanted to be close.

Then the school closed. The community had decided to shutter the aging building and move into a new, larger school in west Casper.

Derreice sent her daughter to Mountain View Elementary, a school several blocks west of her home. It wasn’t across the street. But it was — is — the last school in Mills.

“A lot of residents, they take their kids here,” she said.

But come June, Mountain View, too, might close. On Sept. 29, the Natrona County School District announced that its board was considering closing four schools: Willard, University Park, Frontier and Mountain View. Officials have said falling enrollment and budget cuts — both brought on by a downturn in the economy — may have doomed the schools.

They’re small and inefficient, officials say. There are 970 empty elementary seats in the district, which must cut millions in the coming years. Students can be taught elsewhere, and the costs of principals and administrative staff can be cut.

But to many families and students, a school’s size isn’t a detriment. It’s their neighborhood school, even if they don’t live in the neighborhood. They know everyone.

The four schools have something else in common: All four are Title I schools, as were Mills and Grant Elementary, which the board voted to close last year. In these schools, at least 40 percent of students come from low-income backgrounds. The schools receive additional funding for schoolwide programs to help support those kids.

Many families don’t know what they’ll do if, on Oct. 23, the board votes to close the schools. Many parents feel angry.

That’s where Derreice is. On Thursday afternoon, she sat in her car outside of Mountain View, listening to music and waiting for her daughter to finish school. She wondered what would come next.

“I’m not too happy,” she said.

She’s stuck paying for her house for the next 30 years, she said, so moving isn’t an option. She’s worried about overcrowding at other schools. Her daughter likes Mountain View. She likes her friends. Where will they go if the school closes?

“I think they have a point that Mills is not taken care of as much as Casper,” she said of other concerned parents. The town of Mills is concerned, too: On Friday afternoon, the town council passed a resolution opposing the closure of Mountain View. Council members urged residents to go to the school district’s Monday board meeting to speak up for the last school in town.

But Derreice thinks the board has already made its decision.

Board members say they’re sensitive to the pain they’d create by closing schools, but they’re adamant that they have no choice.

“I just can’t believe we have to do this,” board member Dana Howie said. “I totally understand the numbers. The last thing we want to do is lay people off. All the board members are aware of it. We’re all just agonizing over it.”

The four schools checked all of the right boxes, the board members say, and the recommendations had nothing to do with the schools’ Title I status. The schools had too few students in a district with nearly a thousand empty seats. There are too many administrators for those students in a time of slimming budgets.

“Every school is a community, is a home. But the next school will be, too,” said board chairman Kevin Christopherson. “Everybody likes to think they’re nonreplaceable. Every school in the district will tell you the same thing. It’s tough closing schools. You hear it a lot, and it tugs at your heartstrings, but it is what it is.”

***

Shelby Middaugh lives in Bar Nunn but sent her first-grade daughter to Willard Elementary because it’s close to her “day-care lady.” She likes Willard, she said, because it’s small. Her daughter is kind of an oddball, she said, but has found friends and happiness at Willard, a school of 230 kids off First Street in central Casper.

Shelby is angry. She knows the school is small, but it’s full. From where she was standing, outside her car on a cold morning before school, Shelby gestured toward the playground, where kids were running and playing, chasing each other and standing at the fence, watching their parents leave.

“Look at that playground,” she said. “That is enough kids.”

Like Derreice, Shelby doesn’t yet know what she’ll do. A friend is considering homeschooling. Shelby says she can’t do that — she has to work. She’s worried about her daughter in a new school.

Ideally, Shelby would send her to another small school, where the girl won’t get lost in the shuffle.

“Kids can be so cruel,” she said.

But small schools, which generally have a maximum capacity of 230 or so students, are becoming a thing of the past in Natrona County. Officials looked hard at those schools because they’re inefficient, Christopherson said. With empty seats across the district, those students can fit elsewhere, and the district can save money on administrative costs.

He has said the district can save $500,000 a year in salaries alone by moving administrators into other positions or having them replace retiring employees elsewhere.

Julie Hornby, the principal of University Park — home to 199 students on the east side of Casper — said educators at the district’s small schools had figured they might be in danger. But she and her staff still “rationalized” everything: They had just their gym painted. Why would the district paint the gym and then close the school? University Park must be safe.

Still, when word came down that Friday afternoon, she wasn’t surprised.

“We had some idea that eventually this might be coming our way,” she said.

But that doesn’t make it easier.

“I mean, you’re small,” Hornby said, her voice wavering. “You’re close with kids, you know? I’ve known most of these kids since preschool.”

She smiled and shook off the emotion. She said that a few weeks before the announcement, on another Friday, she met with University Park staff. They all thought she would be delivering news of a closure. She told them no, she would never tell them that the school was closing on a Friday afternoon, just before the start of a weekend.

When she received word on Sept. 29, she called the staff together.

“I said, ‘All right guys, remember how I told you I wouldn’t call you together on a Friday to tell you if I received information about us closing?’” Hornby said, laughing. “‘Well, I lied. So here it is.’”

***

Megan Fleetwood is mad.

She’s mad that Mountain View, where two of her children go, might close. She’s mad that the district is spending money the way it is. She’s mad that Mills seems to be getting left behind.

“In Casper, there’s an elementary every 12 blocks,” she said.

Megan laughed when asked what she would do if the school closed.

“I would try to relocate out of the county,” she said, leaning over the steering wheel of her blue SUV outside of school last week. “I don’t want to support the district.”

She’s heard the reasoning from officials. Her voice rising, she repeated what Michael Jennings, the district’s executive director of human resources, told the media when the closure proposal was announced: The schools are small and inefficient.

“They want to filter us into the bigger schools,” Megan concluded, adding that she thinks the district wants to take the Title I funding that the four schools receive and shift it into those buildings. “We’re the poverty area. We’re not thought of. It’s easier to cast us aside.”

All four school board members who spoke with the Star-Tribune stressed that socioeconomic factors played no role in selecting the schools that may be closed.

“It’s strictly coincidental” that all four are Title I, said board member Toni Billings.

“I’ve had people ask me that,” Howie said. “As far as I can tell, it’s not a consideration. Those are the older schools.”

The schools just fit what the district was looking for, officials say. Willard and University Park were both at or near maximum capacity. But neither has room to grow, board members said, and their student populations can be absorbed elsewhere.

Mountain View has experienced falling enrollment for at least five years. It’s currently at less than half capacity. Frontier is the smallest of the traditional middle schools in Casper and lost 16 students compared with last fall.

The board members said that should the schools close, Title I money will follow the students to their new schools. Students will receive the help they need regardless of their new home. Howie said she was “absolutely” confident that other teachers would be prepared to handle students of any need.

“We have those support services throughout the district,” Christopherson said. “They’re going to get the services.”

***

“It still isn’t real,” Hornby, the principal at University Park said. “We’re all still, ‘It’s a recommendation,’ so we’re hanging onto that.”

What will happen to several hundred students is still in the air. The board will consider the recommendation on Oct. 23 at a meeting at Kelly Walsh High School. It’s unclear what the final vote will be.

Christopherson said he supports the recommendation but isn’t sure what the full board will do. Howie is concerned about closing Mountain View because it’s the only school in Mills. She said she doesn’t want to shutter any building, but Mountain View is especially difficult.

She said she was continuing to look for ways to avoid closures and wondered how the communities would feel if some of the closures were delayed.

“If it’s going to be inevitable, which is best?” she said. “Peel the Band-Aid off a little at a time or just rip it off? ... I’m still trying to decide.”

Board member Dave Applegate said he would make his decision over the next two weeks, as the board receives more input from the community. Billings said she was saddened but understood why all of the schools were recommended for closure.

For some of the parents, the decision already seems final. Megan, whose children go to Mountain View, said she’d reached out to the board and they responded to her concerns. But she thinks their minds are already made up.

Shelby, whose daughter goes to Willard, agreed. But she’s waiting to break the news to her little “oddball.”

“I haven’t told my daughter yet,” Shelby said. “She still has light in her eyes.”

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Star-Tribune reporter Seth Klamann covers local and statewide education issues.

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