Willard Elementary

Students exit Willard Elementary School at the end of the day in November. The school and three others will close at the end of the academic year.

File, Star-Tribune

Little more than 14 hours after the Natrona County school board voted to close four schools, trustee Dana Howie said if she ever had to deliver such a heavy blow again, she’d resign.

“This is not what I got on the board to do,” she said, echoing a comment made by fellow board member Toni Billings the night before, after eight of the nine trustees voted to close Frontier Middle and Mountain View, Willard and University Park elementary schools.

Despite trustees’ voiced anguish, the vote has been made, and at the end of this academic year, the four Natrona County schools will close. More than 700 students and roughly 140 staff members who call those buildings home will leave to schools yet determined.

The work to incorporate the displaced students elsewhere is already underway, officials said Tuesday morning.

The district is scheduling open houses for its 18 Casper-area elementary schools, staggered so that families can attend any and every one. Officials are looking at current enrollment to determine which schools can expand and absorb the students. District personnel are being made available to meet with families who, at the end of this school year, will see their school close.

Meanwhile, district officials maintain that no staff — from custodians to principals to nontenured teachers — will be laid off as a result of the closures, despite some rumors to the contrary.

“We are not laying anybody off, period,” Howie said, as Michael Jennings, the executive director of human resources, nodded.

Avoiding pink slips was, in part, the point of closing the schools. The district has already slashed more than $4 million from its budget and in a best-case scenario will have to cut at least that much in each of the next two years. Because more than 80 percent of the district’s budget is tied up in personnel, the district has had to rely heavily on attrition to trim costs. Officials have repeatedly said that had the schools not closed, layoffs would have been likely.

Shuttering the four schools will save around $2.5 million annually, officials have said, and, barring drastic legislative moves, the district should be able to avoid any layoffs.

The preparation all leads up to Jan. 3, when the two-week window for enrollment opens. Because Natrona County is a district of choice, any student can attend any school. The hundreds whose schools will close will be bumped up in the queue for priority on placement, though officials stressed that they won’t kick a student out from one school so another can take the seat.

Rick Skatula, the executive director of school improvement, said Tuesday that the district is looking at which schools have empty classrooms that can be filled with the newly displaced students and teachers.

While families can look into available schools now, he suggested they wait until open enrollment, when the district will “wipe the slate clean” and have a better idea of openings and capacity.

Students will select their top three choices for new schools. Though he referred to it as a lottery system, Skatula said the vast majority of students end up in one of the three schools they prefer.

After the task of placing students is complete, the district can begin staffing to meet those needs, officials said.

At Monday’s meeting and in the weeks leading up to it, some parents and staff had warned that the change would impact the students of the four schools, which are all Title I. They said the students wouldn’t receive the same support at different schools.

But Jennings and Skatula said staff across the district have experience and will be able to care for the students. The Title I funding will follow the students wherever they go, the officials said.

The same goes for programs like functional life skills and classic kindergarten. Though the schools that are closing hosted those programs, they will still be offered elsewhere in the district, depending on student need.

Concern that those programs will cease to exist is common among the schools’ communities. The three officials — Howie, Skatula and Jennings, along with spokeswoman Tanya Southerland — lamented that there was significant confusion among the public about the district, its budget and why the schools were being closed.

Asked why the district didn’t hold parent meetings — as it did after Grant Elementary was targeted for closure last year — the officials said the public had nearly four weeks to submit comment to the district, and that organizing a meeting with four sets of parents was more difficult, given the timeline. They said the meeting at Grant ended up being less of a dialogue, where school officials could answer questions, and more a chance for the community to voice frustration and concern.

That need was filled at the Oct. 9 and Oct. 23 board meetings, they said, when the public could submit comment.

But the board rarely responds during public comment at its meetings, and there was thus an environment where confusion could fester, the officials acknowledged. Still, they said, they took ample public comment and intentionally gave the communities several weeks to absorb the news. The district had been releasing information hinting that closures were possible for months.

“Grant didn’t know this was coming,” Howie said of the closures. Other schools couldn’t have said the same.

As for the future, there’s no sign that more closures will be needed. The 970 empty enrollment seats have been trimmed to around 200 now. But the study of facilities that led to the shutterings continues, and Jennings warned that what the Legislature decides in the coming months could force the district’s hand in a number of directions.

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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