Thousands of Natrona County students returned to class Tuesday, to schools old and new, remodeled and reopened.
Younger students — many of them formerly of Grant and Mills elementaries — walked into the new Journey Elementary in west Casper. Midwest welcomed back its roughly 130 students for the first time since the school was closed more than 16 months ago. Natrona County High, meanwhile, is six months ahead of schedule and nearly finished with its years-long renovations.
“It’s very exciting,” Midwest Principal Chris Tobin said Tuesday. “It’s good to see all the kids back.”
Located near the Salt Creek oilfield, Midwest has been closed since May 2016, when a gas leak was discovered. The district and FDL Energy, which owns the oil field, installed a radon-like mitigation system to prevent such a leak from happening again.
Then, around Christmas, a pipe burst and flooded the high school hall. That, in turn, forced the district to accelerate its timeline for ridding certain parts of the building of asbestos.
Still, officials maintained plans to open the school at the start of this academic year. Work was finished on the building in the spring, and it was opened to custodians and staff in the early summer. On Tuesday, students returned.
Meanwhile, back in Casper, elementary students filled Journey. The bulk of the students came from Mills Elementary, which closed permanently in June. Roughly half of the students at Grant Elementary, which also closed at the end of the last year because of its condition and falling enrollment, also moved to Journey. Journey was approved in 2014, and construction started in 2016.
Natrona County School District spokeswoman Tanya Southerland said the first day of school went well overall.
The beginning of the 2017-18 school year also marks the end of a busy summer in the education world. As lawmakers considered the state’s education funding model, the district’s board of trustees approved a budget that is nearly $4 million smaller than it was a year ago.
That budgetary work avoided layoffs. Roughly 75 positions have been eliminated — more than 20 of them at the district’s main offices — and more than 15 staff members throughout the district have been reassigned to fill vacancies.
While thousands of students returned to classrooms, the district is still grappling with shrinking enrollment. It has 900 empty elementary seats, and officials have said they’re seriously considering closing more buildings at the end of this school year.