School Closures

A crowd filled the gym for a Natrona County school board in early October at Bar Nunn Elementary. A line of parents and community members spoke in opposition to the district’s proposal to close three elementary schools — Mountain View, University Park and Willard — as well as Frontier Middle School.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

The Natrona County School District plans to move a number of programs — such as classic kindergarten — from three soon-to-be-closed elementary schools, officials said Monday, alleviating some parent concern.

Verba Echols, the district’s associate superintendent for human resources, gave an update to the school board at its bi-monthly meeting about the work being done in the wake of the closure of four schools. The district will be moving the functional life skills program — previously housed at Willard Elementary — to Pineview. Willard’s pre-kindergarten classes will be moving to the recently expanded Bar Nunn. University Park’s pre-school will move to Lincoln, and Mountain View’s will be at the new Journey Elementary. Finally, the classic kindergarten formerly at Willard and Mountain View will move to Southridge and Fort Caspar Academy.

The functional life skills program at Mountain View will end because of enrollment trends.

Three weeks ago, the school board voted to close Mountain View, Willard, University Park and Frontier Middle School in light of recent budget cuts and declining enrollment. At the time, the future of programs like classic kindergarten and functional life skills were frequent concerns of parents and staff.

That was the concrete good news, Echols told the board, but the next part would be “hard on staff”. The more than a hundred employees who call those four schools home will not know their next assignment before mid-March at the earliest, after the district’s open enrollment period has ended and officials can determine where teachers are needed.

As for the several hundred students whose schools are closing, the district will open the enrollment window for them and their families on Nov. 28, weeks before the typical kickoff. That early period will end on Dec. 19, said Rick Skatula, the executive director of school improvement.

He stressed that those students wouldn’t necessary get first choice just because their enrollment began earlier. The district maintains that it doesn’t matter when a family signs up during open enrollment; there’s a tiered system of preference, beneath which is a lottery system.

For instance, students currently in a school who want to stay in that school are never bumped. After them, students with special needs — like those in the functional life skills programs — are given top preference in school choice, as are their siblings. Next comes the students whose schools are closing.

Skatula said the district was opening the window earlier for those families so officials could have more time to ensure none of the students missed enrollment entirely and fell through the cracks. The district will hold open houses at every elementary school through Jan. 11, and, because of how the district scheduled them, it’s theoretically possible for a family to attend every one.

That enrollment will determine a great deal next year. The district waits until that process is completed before it begins fully staffing its schools, an especially important process this year given that so many employees will be moving to new homes.

Board member Toni Billings asked Skatula and Echols about a rumor that had been circulating through the district: When some parents called elementary schools asking for openings and they had been told there were none.

That raised alarm on two fronts: First, it made parents feel like their children might not have a spot next year. And second, it made the district’s claim of 970 open seats seem hollow, if not outright false.

But Skatula explained that the things can be true at once: Schools can have few to no empty seats now, and the district can have hundreds of empty spots across its more than 20 elementaries.

That’s because there are empty classrooms across the district, with no students enrolled and no teacher at the front of the class to guide them. But as the influx of newly displaced students work to find new homes, those classrooms will fill up, and there are now a number of teachers available to teach them.

The specter casting a shadow over the entire discussion was the upcoming legislative session, which could bring a fresh round of cuts. While the district has repeated time and again a desire to avoid layoffs — and claims to be well-positioned to make good on that desire — officials have maintained that legislative action could throw those plans into chaos.

Echols said her hope was to give the recently displaced staff their new assignments by mid-March, but acknowledged that she couldn’t say with certainty because the fiscal ground beneath the district could shift significantly by that time.

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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