In mid-November 2016, a trio of Natrona County School District officials sat a table and said the district was recommending closing Grant Elementary, along with several other unoccupied and non-school buildings.
Less than two weeks later, the district’s board of trustees unanimously approved the recommendation, shuttering a 94-year-old building. The district was facing budget cuts that were going to get worse, and elementary enrollment had been dropping in the wake of the economic downturn. There were too many seats and too few dollars.
“We have too many buildings,” Superintendent Steve Hopkins said at that Nov. 28, 2016, board meeting. “It’s hard to say that, but it’s the stark reality.”
Almost exactly 10 months later, the same trio — Michael Jennings, Rick Skatula and Dennis Bay — again sat a table at the district’s headquarters and announced that they were again recommending the closure of buildings. This time, it was four in-use schools: Willard, Mountain View and University Park elementary schools and Frontier Middle.
The closures would affect hundreds of students and more than a hundred staff members. All four schools were Title 1 designated. The elementaries were all neighborhood schools. Mountain View was the last school in the Mills area. Frontier was the smallest middle school in the district.
But the problems that led to the closure of Grant had persisted and grown worse. For years leading up to the economic downturn, the district had seen its elementary enrollment steadily growing. So steady was the influx of young students that Natrona County officials were told to build new schools and to keep building them.
That growth ended with the bust. But the plans to build new elementary schools were already laid, construction started, buildings nearing completion.
When Grant closed, officials had said there were 500 empty elementary seats in the district. When they announced the recommendation to close the four schools in September, they said there were 970 open seats in Natrona County elementary schools.
On top of the empty seats, the district was facing dwindling state funds, another byproduct of the economic downturn. The board had approved a budget in July that was $4 million lighter than the previous year. In the best-case scenario, the board would have to cut at least that much in the coming two years.
Less than four weeks after the proposal was released, the board voted 8 to 1 to close the four schools. A late amendment attempted to save Mountain View, noting that it was the lone elementary in Mills. But it was voted down, and the ax fell a few moments later.
Officials have said that if the board did not vote to close the schools — which will save an estimated $2.5 million a year — then the district would have to cut costs elsewhere. That almost certainly meant layoffs, which the district has been able to avoid so far, even with the closures.
Still, no one was happy with the closures. Board members said they hoped to never have to close schools again. The Mills Town Council approved a resolution opposing the move. Community members lined up before board meetings and expressed their displeasure. They told the board to crunch the numbers again, to do their jobs, to think of the kids being bused and of the communities losing their schools.
Now the district faces down another spring that will see the last day for more schools. The three officials who initially recommended the closure of Grant in 2016 and the four schools this year say there are no plans to close more schools. But their study of the district’s schools continues.