The chairman of Natrona County’s school board said the potential closing of four area schools is “tough” and will cause pain but that officials likely had no other choice and that the shuttering of one middle school was probably inevitable.
“I don’t think we had any choice,” Kevin Christopherson said. “... It’s been known that if things don’t change with enrollment that there would be more closings this year.”
A small group of board members — including Christopherson — has recommended the closure of Frontier Middle and University Park, Willard and Mountain View elementary schools, the district announced Friday. A downturn in the economy has spurred a recent decline in elementary enrollment in the Natrona County School District, which has 970 open seats in its lower grades.
If the buildings are closed, it will be the second straight year that the board has voted to shutter schools: In November, officials decided to close Grant Elementary, an under-capacity school that needed $500,000 in repairs.
Christopherson said the discussion about closing schools has been ongoing for months. In mid-September, when the first hard enrollment numbers were available for this school year, officials learned how serious the situation was: More than 150 students have left Casper elementary schools since last fall. Roughly 350 have departed since 2014.
“We had way too many open seats after we closed Grant last year,” he said.
The recommendation released Friday also calls for the closure of the district’s special education building, as well as the North Casper, Willow Creek and Westwood Elementary schools, none of which currently house students. The full board will consider the recommendation at its Oct. 23 meeting.
Michael Jennings, the district’s executive director of human resources, said Friday that the targeted schools are generally “small and inefficient.”
Struggling middle school
On Monday, Christopherson echoed Jennings. He said he and others on the board had been considering closing Frontier for some time. He said the middle school — which shares a campus with Casper Classical Academy — has been “failing” academically and is shrinking.
Frontier has been rated as “not meeting expectations” for the past three school years, according to the state Department of Education. Should it close, Casper Classical Academy would remain open and would take over the building.
Frontier is the smallest of the district’s traditional middle schools by several hundred students.
It likely would’ve been targeted for closure in the coming years, Christopherson said, as state funding grows tighter amid an education-funding crisis that’s likely to leave Wyoming schools $530 million in the hole by 2019.
“I’m chair of the board, and we’ve had a lot of push from some of the trustees that we need to do something about Frontier,” Christopherson said, adding that “we’re getting pressure from the state on finances, and it costs a lot of money to keep a principal over there, with all that support staff.”
He added that no district employees — from principals to maintenance workers — are slated to lose their jobs, should the board approve the closure recommendations. But, he said, some will likely be transitioned into new jobs.
Small elementary schools
As for the three elementary schools, contrasting fortunes have left them on the chopping block. Mountain View, for instance, has been plagued by declining enrollment: The school has been losing students for five straight years, Christopherson said. Officials had hoped that when Mills Elementary closed in June, enrollment at nearby Mountain View would climb.
But it actually dropped, and Mountain View is now at less than half capacity.
“Mountain View is a tough one because it’s the only school in Mountain View,” Christopherson said, adding that he expects pushback on the recommendation. “Mountain View didn’t have enough kids to have its own kindergarten. ... It’s the same position as Grant. In order to bring the building up to current codes, it would be almost a million dollars to do that. We just had to look at it and say, ‘Do these kids deserve to go to better schools?’”
University Park and Willard, meanwhile, are both near capacity. But Christopherson said they’re two of the district’s smallest schools. Closing them is about cutting costs and maximizing space elsewhere.
“Just the inefficiencies of running those small schools tells us we need to cut,” he said. Like Frontier, University Park and Willard both have the same administrative costs as much larger elementary schools that have open seats, like Journey. “It’s all about saving money right now.”
The district received approval for Journey years ago, when elementary enrollment in the district was on the rise. Natrona County would need to build a new elementary school every two years to keep pace, state officials told the district.
So Journey was OK’d, as were Lincoln Elementary and an addition to Bar Nunn.
Then came the bust, which took dollars from state coffers and students from Natrona County schools. The district now finds itself with too little funding and too many empty seats.
Christopherson said that each school closure could save the district around $500,000 a year in salaries alone. That doesn’t include utilities (Dennis Bay, executive director of business services, said Friday that could be between $20,000 and $40,000 annually) and the support services — like IT, maintenance and other staff — the district sends to schools on a regular basis.
“Realistically, the savings for shutting down a school like that could approach $750,000 per school,” he said. “We’re still trying to do it where we’re not having to lay off any current employees.”
Christopherson said he couldn’t predict whether the board would approve the recommendation and close the schools. He said he supports the move but expects some members to come out against the Mountain View closure in particular.
Messages left for other members of the board were not returned Monday.
Christopherson said he knows that if the board decides to close even one school, it will cause pain for the effected community.
“We have 13,000 kids and 3,000 employees, and we have to do what we have to,” he said. If that means “cutting off one of the tentacles that’s bleeding us dry, if that’s what needs to be done, that’s what needs to be done. It’s not the happiest thing I get to do.”