The Natrona County School District Board of Trustees voted Monday to close Grant Elementary School as a mother and the school’s principal sat in the back and cried.
The approval means that Grant and Mills Elementary will likely be removed from inventory — preferably sold but potentially demolished — by Sept. 1, 2017. North Casper Elementary, the old Roosevelt High School and the Fairgrounds should be disposed of by July 1. The Star Lane Center will be closed no later than the end of the 2017-18 school year.
The approved recommendations stemmed from a report completed by school officials in mid-November. The study examined the district’s properties with the aim of cutting costs and improving efficiency in the midst of an economic decline that’s pulling elementary enrollment down with it.
The approved recommendations also included continuing the facility study that doomed Grant and providing updates on district facilities’ conditions to board committees every quarter.
After the vote, superintendent Steve Hopkins said that while the decision was difficult and the pain felt by the Grant community was “genuine and real,” clear-eyed assessments of the district in an economic downturn are a necessity.
“I’m saddened. I am very aware that the staff, students and parents have created a community (at Grant), and this closure disrupts that,” he said. “My belief is that we have to take these kinds of steps now to avoid bigger cuts in the future.”
For Grant, district officials have said it checked all the wrong boxes: Its enrollment has been declining for three straight years, and it now sits at 80 percent capacity. It needs a new roof and significant foundation work. In a district with more than 500 empty elementary seats, that 80 percent capacity number was a big red flag, Hopkins said.
“We have too many buildings,” he said. “It’s hard to say that, but it’s the stark reality.”
Principal Shawna Smith is in charge of one those buildings now deemed excess capacity. Hours before the meeting, she tried to explain what it felt like to lose the school she and her staff had worked so hard to make a home for the 174 students that she calls kiddos.
“It’s a loss,” she said, her voice breaking. “It’s grief.”
Two years ago, as the energy market started to tilt, the board asked district officials to cut costs, evaluate all programs and examine all facilities. That involved looking hard at enrollment, the elementary trend line for which looks bleak. More than 200 students have left Natrona County in the past two years — most in the past nine months, superintendent Steve Hopkins said last week.
The past two years of declining enrollment come after seven years of steady growth for elementary students, a population boom of more than 150 such students a year. At that clip, the district had to build more schools and create more space. Now, it’s facing an overcapacity of more than 500 elementary school seats.
To cut costs, the district eliminated 23 positions through attrition at its central office, Hopkins said. That translates to about 30 percent of its workforce. Those kinds of moves helped stop harder cuts, like layoffs or hiring freezes, Hopkins said.
During the course of the facility investigation, officially titled the Facility Condition and Capacity study, district officials looked at a number of criteria for each facility: financial stability, how efficiently the facility is run, staff per site, enrollment figures for the past three years and accessibility of the school.
In addition to its drooping enrollment and structural woes, Grant’s location means the district has to close a nearby street twice a day for dropping off and picking up students.
“Grant is the highest in Natrona County in need for improvement,” Michael Jennings, the district’s executive director of human resources, said last week. Jennings was one of the district officials who conducted the study, and he sat in the room Monday as Grant’s fate was sealed.
That didn’t matter to the roughly 50 parents of Grant students who questioned at a recent meeting why Grant was in disrepair and wondered if they could raise money to fix it. And even if they couldn’t, they didn’t care. The school was more to them, to their children, than a building.
“We don’t care about how fancy the school is. We don’t care about how it looks like on the outside. We care about what’s on the inside,” Jami Ferguson said at the meeting. She has four children at Grant. And on Monday, she quietly cried with principal Smith as the motion was read out and the board discussed and approved it.
Life after Grant
Now that the board has decided to close Grant, the school will close in June. Faculty and staff will be reassigned, though Smith’s future is uncertain. She said she’s focused on her staff.
“Change sometimes can be a good thing,” she said. “I would rather they close our school and our teachers still have jobs and our staff still have jobs … I don’t think (district officials) would close a school without maintaining the human aspect of the people working there.”
As for the students and their parents, they have two options.
First, they could decide to enter the open enrollment process. Grant students would get first crack at selecting a new school in the district, and the district would send staff to Grant to help parents and students through the enrollment process. A student would be able to pick his or her top three choices.
Should none of those three schools be able to take a new second-grader or fourth-grader or kindergartner, then the enrollment team would continue working with the family to find the next best choice, officials told parents last week.
Parents who spoke at the meeting last week and with the Star-Tribune afterward said they would prefer an alternative approach. Should all or a large number of Grant students want to stick together, then the school, along with its teachers, could move as a unit. Journey, a new school that will soon be home to students from Mills Elementary, has room for the Grant kids and their teachers.
Hopkins said the district is waiting to see what the parents decide. But enrollment begins in January, so the timeline is roughly six weeks to decide whether to move as a large unit or to splinter.
Like Hopkins, Smith isn’t sure what the parents and students will decide about their future. But she’s hopeful, and she repeated a school mantra.
“One of the great things about Grant is that tomorrow is a new day.”