Less than two hours after they celebrated cutting the ribbon for an addition to Bar Nunn Elementary on Monday night, the members of the Natrona County school board faced wave after wave of criticism — including from one of their own — as it weighs whether to close four schools in Casper and Mills.

More than a dozen people lined up in front of six school board members — three, including chairman Kevin Christopherson, were absent — and defended Frontier Middle and Mountain View, University Park and Willard elementaries. They spoke of the value of small and neighborhood schools, of knowing every teacher and student, of not having to put their child on a bus.

It was the first public comment since a small group of board members recommended closing the four schools in late September. Officials have cited declining enrollment — there are about 350 fewer elementary students in Natrona County than there were in 2014 — and budget woes brought on by a downturn in the economy.

First came Mills Mayor Seth Coleman, whose wife, Angela Coleman, is the newest school board member. On Friday, his Town Council voted to oppose a recommendation by Natrona County School District officials to close Mountain View Elementary, the last school in the Mills community.

Coleman listed a number of areas in the budget that could be cut instead of schools, including money spent at the district’s administrative offices, which has trimmed more than 40 positions in recent years. He also noted that the district’s general fund budget actually grew compared with last year.

That’s true, though deceiving. The district had previously received funding for certain services, like instructional facilitators, outside of its block grant. In March, the Legislature slashed funding for those grants and then moved them into the general funds. So the general fund grew, but overall funding to the district shrank.

Coleman also advocated using some of the $10 million that the district currently has in reserves. Typically, the board puts several hundred thousand dollars into that account every year.

He told the board and the audience of more than 50 that he was in “absolute opposition to closing any of these elementary schools.”

Most of the speakers were from the Mills area. Buddy Hanson, the pastor at Mountain View Baptist Church, said he didn’t see the empty seats of Mountain View, which is at half capacity. He said he saw the filled seats.

“I realize we’re in a school of choice. I get that,” he said, referring to the district’s policy allowing students in the county to attend any school with openings. “But there are many families in our community that we care very much about and that we minister to when we can that would love to go to that school. That’s their school of choice. They can walk across the street. It’s a community school.”

Many of the comments homed in on the district’s school-of-choice policy. Could the district save money, the parents and community members asked the board, if they weren’t busing students all around? What if a student had to attend his or her neighborhood school? Wouldn’t that boost enrollment?

The board members didn’t respond; they rarely do to remarks made during public comment. But several told the Star-Tribune last week that there was little appetite among members to revoke school of choice. Christopherson said recently that the board had looked at it and found the savings would be minimal if they switched to a bounded district. On top of that, the state reimburses the district for what it spends on transportation.

Beyond the budgetary details — which Hanson said he didn’t have a full grasp on — the recommendation was just bad optics, the pastor told the board. In June, Mills Elementary closed. Shuttering Mountain View would deprive Mills of a school and send a message to the community.

“You’re telling them, ‘You’re less than,’” he said.

Mark Hammel, another Mountain View parent, told the board to “crunch the numbers again ‘till it works. That’s your job.”

“I don’t want my kid on a bus to Evansville or Casper,” he said. “I want him safe.”

Concern about busing was another consistent theme. Parents extolled the closeness of their neighborhood schools, of knowing every student and every teacher. What of bus overcrowding? they asked. What of the time kids would spend on the buses in the mornings and evenings?

“I chose my school,” said Mountain View parent Megan Fleetwood. “My kids can walk to school. I can walk my kids to school.”

For weeks, the district had been preparing for the possibility of school closure, which was initially drawn up by a small group of officials studying facilities. But at least some of the nine people on the board of trustees were caught off guard by the recommendation’s breadth.

Members Toni Billings and Dana Howie told the Star-Tribune last week they were surprised by the number of occupied schools recommended for closure. Clark Jensen said Monday night he hadn’t made up his mind, and Dave Applegate said he would decide as he heard public comment.

Chairman Kevin Christopherson said he didn’t expect Mountain View to be on the list, and Howie was unsure how she would vote because of the Mills school.

At least one member is in opposition to much of the recommendation. Angela Coleman, a Mills resident who joined the board late last year, has spoken very little at meetings in the past.

She broke that silence Monday night.

“I am not for closing the only school left in Mills,” she said, noting she was a graduate of Mountain View. “I have to say I am not in agreement with the closure of University Park or Willard.”

She said the board could find other ways to cut the budget without closing the schools and said the district should’ve built the new Journey Elementary — which effectively absorbed Mills Elementary — in Mills, rather than in west Casper.

Jensen spoke after Coleman and said the district was caught “between a rock and a half place.”

“We’ve got 970 seats in the elementary system right now that are unfilled,” he said. “The state is decreasing our budget by $4 million, approximately. We’ve got to make some hard decisions. ... I’m just telling you, there’s some real challenges we face, and we have to face the reality that the budget does have limits.”

The board will vote on the recommendations at its next meeting, on Oct. 23 at Kelly Walsh High School.

The response of parents at Monday’s meeting signals a shift from November, when the board voted to close Grant Elementary in front of a silent audience of one parent and the principal. In that case, the community had a public meeting, where district officials stood before parents and answered questions, at Grant a few days after the school was targeted for closure.

District officials have said the schools are small and inefficient — meaning they are home to students who can be educated elsewhere, which would save on administrative costs. Christopherson has said the closures can save $500,000 apiece and will avoid layoffs. Because of the economic downturn, the district must cut millions over the coming years. The budget its board approved in July was nearly $4 million smaller than the previous year.

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Star-Tribune reporter Seth Klamann covers local and statewide education issues.

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