School Closures

Superintendent Steve Hopkins and Natrona County school board members Rita Walsh, left, and Dana Howie listen to comments from the public earlier this month at Bar Nunn Elementary. The school board is weighing whether 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’s nine-member board will determine the immediate educational fate of 750 students Monday night when its members vote on whether to close one middle and three elementary schools.

How those nine men and women will vote remains up in the air.

“I really can’t tell you where or what this is going to look like when we’re done Monday night,” board chairman Kevin Christopherson said last week.

The vote comes less than four weeks after the district announced on a Friday afternoon that a handful of board members — working from a proposal from district staff — had recommended closing Mountain View, Willard, University Park and Frontier.

Since then, the Mills Town Council — faced with the prospect of losing the community’s last school — has passed a resolution opposing the recommendation. Roughly 50 people turned up to the Oct. 9 board meeting, and a dozen spoke out against the closures.

Uncertain vote

It’s unclear how the board will vote. Trustee Angela Coleman came out against the closure of the three elementary schools. Dana Howie said she was still undecided as of Thursday morning. Dave Applegate told the Star-Tribune ahead of the Oct. 9 board meeting that he would make his decision over the next two weeks.

Christopherson said he supported the recommendation as currently written, but, because he predicted that changes would be brought forward, he couldn’t say whether he would vote yes or no on whatever the final version is.

“I believe it’s going to survive in some form,” he said. “It’s hard to tell. ... We have to get rid some of those seats. It’s obvious we have to close some schools. If we don’t close that school, we have to come up with $300,000 to $400,000 a year from somewhere else. No matter what we do, we’re affecting people.”

On Wednesday, trustee Rita Walsh said she was still torn and hadn’t decided yet but suggested it was an all-or-none situation, at least for the elementary schools: She said that she wouldn’t “feel good” about closing Willard and University Park but not Mountain View.

“I understand the solid, concrete data that staff has prepared for us, and then I listen to, I guess, the emotion and the feelings on how it’s affecting people’s lives,” she said.

Howie said she was sensitive to the fact that the schools are in neighborhoods but pointed out that didn’t mean they were full of solely children from those neighborhoods.

“Over 70 percent of parents in our district have sent their children to schools outside their neighborhood, even though families who live in the neighborhoods get priority,” she wrote in an email Thursday. “Out of 138 students at Mt. View, 41 of them live in the neighborhood.”

The schools find themselves on the same precipice for different reasons: University Park and Willard are full schools but are “small and inefficient,” officials have said, meaning larger, emptier schools can absorb their student populations while cutting administrative costs.

Mountain View, meanwhile, is plagued by the declining elementary enrollment that has chipped away at the district in the years since the economy crashed. Mountain View is at less than half capacity, making it one of the emptiest schools in the district.

Frontier, the smallest traditional middle school in Casper, had been on the minds of board members for some time, they have said. At a board meeting on Oct. 9, Coleman said she was opposed to the closing of the three elementary schools but made no mention of Frontier, which Christopherson had characterized as “failing” academically.

The elected trustees have been in this position before. In November, they voted unanimously to close Grant Elementary, a 94-year-old school that had suffered from declining enrollment and deteriorating infrastructure.

Sinking enrollment

The climate that led to Grant’s closure has in many ways remained unchanged: The district faces sinking lower-grade enrollment in a county that just completed work on three new elementary schools, approved long before the bust that’s shaken education in Wyoming to its core. Officials here have already cut roughly $4 million from the district’s budget and will have to shave twice that over the coming two years.

On top of the drop in state revenues, the district’s loss of students means even less funding. As of mid-September, there were 970 empty elementary seats in the district’s roughly two dozen lower schools, a remarkable reversal that followed years of steady growth (hence the need for new elementary schools).

That $8 million that remains to be cut — which district officials have said they can absorb without layoffs — may be the best-case scenario: Currently, lawmakers are undertaking a complete examination of the state’s funding system, an examination that could fundamentally alter how much money Wyoming’s 48 school districts receive.

But right now, that’s an unknown. The recommendation facing the board — to close the four schools, as well as shutter or sell four other buildings — is driven by the current situation. Officials have said closing the schools can save the district as much as $500,000 each, as well as thousands more in utilities and upkeep of the buildings.

Parents and Mills officials opposing the closures have raised argument after argument: The district should dip into its reserves, of which it has more than $10 million. The district should stop allowing any student in the district to attend any school, regardless of location. The district’s budget shows growth compared with last year, in apparent contradiction to the cries of cuts. The district should shave its administrative staff at its headquarters. The district shouldn’t have built Journey Elementary and shouldn’t have expanded Bar Nunn.

Those complaints were raised at the Oct. 9 board meeting. As is typical for those meetings, the board did not respond to public comment, leaving many of the questions unanswered in the minds of the critics.

But officials have addressed the concerns in interviews with the Star-Tribune. They aren’t considering ending school of choice: It wouldn’t save money, they say, and transportation is reimbursed fully by the state. The budget grew as a result of legislative changes but still shrank in terms of overall dollars. At the district’s main administrative office, more than 40 employees have left and not been replaced since the downturn began. The new elementary spaces were all approved and funded in the years before the downturn, before students began leaving the district in droves. And besides, the money set aside for the new schools couldn’t have been legally used for operations, like staff salaries.

As for using savings, Christopherson said that money could be used only once. The district needs consistent savings, and if the funding situation becomes worse, then that $10 million could become more vital to bridging a more serious gap.

Still, other questions remain. Monday night’s board meeting, set to take place at Kelly Walsh and will begin with public comment, will almost certainly be the last chance to voice them before the vote.

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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