Mills Mayor Seth Coleman claimed Monday night that former Natrona County School District chairman Kevin Christopherson sent him an email offering to give priority to reopening Mountain View Elementary in exchange for Mills buying district property.
Speaking at a public hearing Monday night, Coleman called the email a bribe and told the board they could “take your bribe and shove it.” He called the school board members aristocrats and told them to resign.
“Many of who have portrayed yourself to be smarter than the public that you serve,” he said, as board chairwoman Rita Walsh tried to interject and tell him he had run out of time. The board typically limits public comment to three minutes.
“The case has actually been that you cannot be bothered to follow the basic laws that govern public meetings in this state,” he continued.
Christopherson later acknowledged sending the email but denied that it was a bribe.
The board would eventually vote to move forward with the abandonment or sale of five buildings, including Mills Elementary. They also voted to mothball Mountain View. They had already voted to close four schools but needed to hold a public hearing on the sale or abandonment of the properties to comply with state statute.
Coleman told the board and a small crowd at the district’s headquarters that Mills residents had rejected an attempt by the district to purchase a street near Mills Elementary — which closed in June — and a request by the district to rezone the area for private use. Coleman said after the meeting the requests were made with the intent to sell the school and that a certain amount of people living around Mills Elementary had to agree to both attempts. They did not, he said.
He then said he received an email from Christopherson, in which the board member allegedly told Coleman that, should the town buy the Mills Elementary property from the district, then officials would give priority to Mountain View should the district reopen schools in the future.
In the Dec. 4 email, provided by Christopherson, the board member told Coleman he hoped the two could “find common ground.”
“As you know, (Mountain View) is in need of some expensive maintenance and updates, and one factor in choosing which schools to reopen when the time comes, will be the cost of bringing them online,” Christopherson wrote. “Mountain View is a larger school and serves an isolated area and should be one of the first choices to reopen when we start growing again. Having some money earmarked for that purpose will surely help a future board choose that school.”
In his Dec. 6 response, Coleman said the town was interested in purchasing Mills Elementary, “irrespective of how NCSD No. 1 may make use of the money generated by that sale.”
“The Town also would not seek to interfere with the internal decision of the school board as to how it might seek to make use of the funds and whether or not it wished to earmark those for an eventual reopening of the Mountain View school,” he continued.
Coleman is the husband of school board member Angela Coleman.
Seth Coleman told the board that he did not believe the district could absorb the number of staff displaced by the looming closure of four schools. He told them he suspected district officials had a secret plan to layoff those staff members.
District officials have repeatedly denied they plan to layoff any staff. They have said that attrition and the opening of new classrooms within existing buildings will provide space for displaced teachers.
During a period of trustee comments Monday night, Christopherson said the email was an attempt to make a deal.
“Unfortunately, your school is going to be on the same footing as every other school in the city because there’s no money sitting around,” Christopherson said later in the meeting.
He told the Star-Tribune it was unfortunate that Coleman had taken an adversarial position and that Mills “could’ve been in a much better position.”
Christopherson added that he sent the letter to Superintendent Steve Hopkins beforehand. Hopkins, Christopherson said, told him it was a good idea.
Hopkins said after the meeting he couldn’t recall if he had seen it.
“But that doesn’t mean I haven’t,” he said.
Kathleen Dixon, the district’s attorney, said she had not seen the letter before it was sent.
In the email to Coleman, Christopherson said he had “talked to Steve about my idea of taking any money generated from the sale of the school to your town, and earmarking it to the eventual re-opening costs of Mountain view (sic) school, and he said it was a great idea.”
In June, the school district closed Mills Elementary. District officials say the school community offered to vacate the building and move to the newly completed Journey Elementary, which is located in west Casper.
In October, the school board voted to close four more schools — including Mountain View, Mills’ last school.
The Town of Mills is currently suing the school district over the closure of Mills and the looming closure of Mountain View. The district asked a judge to throw out the lawsuit. Coleman said after the meeting that the town was looking into making its lawsuit a class action.