School Cuts

Second-grade teacher Holly Gilbert works on a project with her students Dec. 7 at Willard Elementary School in Casper.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

A handful of days after the Natrona County School District announced it may close four schools next year, its top officials worked to dispel common concerns about the plans.

For example, the district isn’t closing “small and inefficient” schools because of their educational quality but because of costs, said Michael Jennings, the district’s executive director of human resources.

“They’re giving a great education,” he said.

On Friday, the district announced that its board of trustees will vote on the closures, which also include four other buildings that don’t currently house students. The recommendations are a product of falling elementary enrollment and recent cuts to the district’s budget. It’s the second straight year that the board has considered closing a school.

The in-use schools that may close are Frontier Middle and University Park, Mountain View and Willard elementary schools.

The recommendations also call for the closure of Willow Creek Elementary, North Casper Elementary, Westwood and the district’s special education building.

Jennings, along with Rick Skatula, the executive director of school improvement, and Dennis Bay, executive director of business services, said Wednesday morning that the four schools checked all of the boxes for a district that’s trying to cut costs while its enrollment falls.

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Mountain View is at less than half capacity, and the district has 970 empty elementary seats. Willard and University Park are nearly at capacity, but they’re small schools, officials reason, and their populations can be absorbed by vacant spots at larger elementaries while the district saves on administrative costs.

Frontier is also small — relative to other traditional middle schools in the district — and was described by board chairman Kevin Christopherson as “failing” academically.

For the officials, the recommendation may have been relatively clear. But other parts of the proposal have caused confusion in the broader community.

For instance, Frontier Middle shares a building with Casper Classical Academy. Though a district press release says Frontier is slated for closure, that refers to the school as an institution. Should the board approve it, the classical academy would remain open and would take over the building, while Frontier would cease to exist.

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Some staff at the schools — who learned about the potential closures about an hour before media did on Friday afternoon — have also asked why officials can’t use construction money to help supplement the cuts made to the general budget.

“That’s still a major source of confusion for our public,” said Jennings, who was one of the district administrators who studied school closures for a board subcommittee.

The reason the district can’t mix the two is that it’s legally prohibited: Construction dollars are allocated from the Legislature, based on analysis by the School Facilities Commission and the Select Committee on School Facilities, on a per-project basis.

Operations funding, meanwhile, comes in a lump-sum block grant from the Wyoming Department of Education and is tied to the state’s funding model. The two funding sources are separate, both in where they come from and for what they can be used.

Bay said money allocated to rebuild Kelly Walsh High couldn’t have been transferred to pay for anything else at the district — even maintenance of other buildings.

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Jennings, Bay and Skatula said that some potentially affected staff had also expressed concern about layoffs.

The district in July approved a budget that absorbs nearly $4 million in cuts from the state, a result of a downturn in the energy economy. But it avoided layoffs, and officials reiterated Wednesday morning that the board hopes to leave layoffs as a cost-cutting method of last resort.

Jennings said that the district should be able to absorb the proposed school closures without any staff member being served a pink slip. He couldn’t rule out layoffs as a result of future state action but said that from what the district knows now, staff should be safe.

There had also been concern from at least one parent at another school about class size, said spokeswoman Tanya Southerland. Most of the district’s K-3 classrooms have 18 students. Fourth- and fifth-graders are typically in classes with 25 peers, while older students are generally are in classes with 32 students.

Jennings said that there’s no overcrowding in the district. To the contrary, he repeated that there are 970 open seats in the lower grade levels. Even if the district closes the three elementary schools and the students go elsewhere in Natrona County, there will still be 200 empty spots.

Still, none of those questions or concerns was the top priority for the staff members of the four schools that may close at the end of this academic year.

“First and foremost, their number one concern, ‘What’s going to happen with our kids?’” Skatula said. “That’s their primary concern. They do have concerns about, ‘What’s going to happen to me,’ but those questions came much later than, ‘What’s going to happen with our kids and our families?’”

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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