Willard Elementary

Students exit Willard Elementary School at the end of the day in November. The school and three others will close at the end of the academic year.

File, Star-Tribune

It’s no secret that Wyoming’s education system is facing a funding crisis. And it’s no surprise that local educators are being forced to make tough decisions in response to shrinking budgets and falling enrollment.

But those realities do not justify the decision by the Natrona County School District board to close Frontier Middle School and Willard, Mountain View and University Park elementary schools.

The vote means roughly 750 students will have to find new schools next year. It means a handful of Casper neighborhoods – and the entire town of Mills – will lose their only schools. And it means new hardships for families who will have to find schools for their children outside their immediate communities.

School board members say their hands were tied, that they had to close the schools because the consequences of not doing so were grave. But district officials failed to articulate exactly what those consequences were so the public could judge whether they were justified to take such a dramatic step. With no alternative offered, is it any surprise that school board members took the only option presented to them?

Even more concerning is the fact that all four schools – plus a fifth that was closed in June – have Title I status, meaning they serve high numbers of poor and working class students. These are schools with students who are more likely to come from poverty and lack the economic resources of their peers.

By deciding to close only Title I schools, the board disproportionately affected low-income students in addressing the district’s enrollment and financial problems. Put simply, the most vulnerable students will bear the brunt of the district’s financial woes.

How can this be? Education officials say the schools’ Title I status had no bearing on their decision. In fact, they say they didn’t even take that into consideration when making their decision. This admission is stunning. If we take them at their word, it means they didn’t ask themselves whether the poorest student populations would be hit especially hard by their vote.

Because only Title I schools were closed, students who already lack the resources of their peers will face new challenges. They’ll lose the support system that existed for them in their old schools. They’ll have to find new places to learn with new teachers. They’ll spend more time on busses being transported to schools outside their neighborhoods, their communities.

District officials first announced their plans to possibly close these schools on a Friday evening. They later ignored calls for public meetings where the affected families could have their questions answered.

What’s done is done, but the board has an obligation to make this difficult transition more transparent, to offer comfort to a shaken community. District officials should articulate in detail how they’ll ensure that these students and their families don’t get lost in the shuffle when they begin life in new schools next fall. They need to show exactly how these students will receive the support they need to succeed, wherever they are. They owe them that much.

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Joshua Wolfson joined the Star-Tribune in 2007, covering crime and health before taking over the arts section in 2013. He also served as managing editor before being named editor in June 2017. He lives in Casper with his wife and their two kids.

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