The Natrona County School District is likely to close at least one elementary school as a result of declining enrollment that’s left 970 elementary seats empty, officials say.
The district released its 10-day enrollment count Wednesday. Natrona County schools currently have 12,869 students enrolled, down nearly a hundred compared to last year. There are 154 fewer elementary students than there were last year, and 350 fewer compared to 2014.
Essentially, officials said, there are two or three large elementary schools’ worth of empty seats in Natrona County.
“You can tell with 970 (empty seats), there’s a serious look at elementary schools. We’re likely to close an elementary school, but there has been no decision made at this time to close a specific elementary school,” said Michael Jennings, executive director of human resources.
He said the economy is believed to be the biggest factor in why students are leaving the district.
The school board will consider the capacity issue and likely discuss school closures at one of its two October meetings, officials said, though it’s unclear which one. They will meet on Oct. 9 and 23.
If the district decides to close a school, it will be the second straight year the board has shuttered an elementary. In mid-November last year, the district closed Grant Elementary, which had excess capacity and needed roughly $500,000 in repairs.
If the district closes a school, it will almost certainly be at the end of this academic year. Such was the case with Grant, and officials have said they want to let families know as early as possible that their child’s school will be shuttered.
Jennings said that if a school is closed, its capacity will be the driving factor. The building’s condition will play a role, but to a much smaller degree than was the case with Grant.
The district also closed Mills Elementary and sold the old Roosevelt High School and the Fairgrounds Center. Last month, the district announced it was closing Westwood School — which housed some Midwest students last year — and what was formerly the Jefferson School, which had served as main office for the district’s special education services.
The Natrona County School District, like Wyoming’s many other districts in the state, is being hit by what officials call the double whammy: As the state’s economy tumbles, there is less money to pay for schools, and districts receive less as the broader budget is slashed.
Simultaneously, families are leaving the state in search of jobs elsewhere. Because a district’s funding is tied directly to its enrollment, a loss of students means even fewer dollars.
Jennings and Rick Skatula, the executive director of school improvement, said that a school closing wouldn’t mean layoffs. When Grant closed, its teachers were able to be reassigned elsewhere in the district as other teachers resigned or retired.
Officials warned last month that school closure was a strong possibility and that the district needed to “right size” itself. For years before the economy crashed in 2015, enrollment here had been steadily climbing, especially in the lower grade levels.
The state told Natrona County that it needed to build new elementary schools to keep up with projected growth. State officials estimated that Natrona County would have more than 7,200 elementary students in 2017.
In turn, the district began work on Journey Elementary school — which is nearly double the size of the now-closed Mills Elementary — and approved additions at Bar Nunn and Lincoln.
Now, it finds itself well planned for a future that never came to pass. Instead of 7,200 elementary students, there are just over 6,100 in Natrona County.
Skatula and Jennings said there’s no way to predict when the enrollment decline will end, and there’s little officials here can do to stop families from packing up and leaving. Skatula said birth rate data — which gives the district an idea of what its enrollment may look like in a few years — is declining in Natrona County, but he cautioned against drawing long-term conclusions from that data alone.