School Closures

Dennis Bay, executive director of business services for the Natrona County School District, along with district officials Rick Skatula and Michael Jennings, hosts a press conference after it was announced that the district is recommending four schools be closed. Mountain View, University Park and Willard elementary schools as well as Frontier Middle School would be closed after the current school year if the plan is approved by the school board.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

The Natrona County School District owes its community a better explanation of why it’s poised to close four schools that are currently in use.

The district decided that a Friday evening was the right time to notify the public that Willard, University Park and Mountain View elementaries, along with Frontier Middle School, could close after this school year. Officials said the timing would allow families and staff to process the news over the weekend.

Instead, thanks to the timing and the district’s vague communication, staff and families were left with big questions about the educational future of Casper-area children and no way to immediately connect with answers. Rumors and outright misinformation floated throughout our community.

That’s beyond disappointing, because this is an incredibly important decision – one with long-lasting implications that don’t stop at the school district. It will affect students, families, district employees and neighborhoods around the Casper area now and in the years to come.

All four of the schools on the chopping block – plus Grant Elementary, which closed last year – are Title I schools, which means they serve poor and working-class students. Shuttering those schools, with their unique cultures, would force the students into new ones that might not be prepared to address their needs, and there’s reason to worry that they might lose out on services when they transfer to new schools.

Board officials must make it clear that they understand the stakes. This decision would leave whole chunks of Casper without a neighborhood school, and that matters. Schools serve as neighborhood gathering places; they’re at the heart of vibrant communities. Families see their neighbors in the parking lot and at school events. Casper is trying to encourage development in these areas, but without schools nearby, that could be a hard sell.

And the neighborhoods at risk of losing these schools are ill equipped to do so. People who live in these areas often don’t have the resources of other, more affluent families in the district. If these schools close, poorer families would be left with fewer options. The students would be shunted to other schools and sprinkled in among populations that don’t necessarily share their needs. It would be easy for them to become marginalized – to fall between the cracks. They deserve better.

In fact, the entire community deserves better. A decision of this magnitude should be communicated as effectively as possible. Instead, many parents at the affected schools are under the impression that the board had already come to a conclusion, rather than doing the right thing and involving them from the beginning. That’s troubling, particularly because the district has shown it can be an effective communicator when it chooses to do so.

However, the district has a chance to turn this around and give parents the answers they deserve. The only way to accomplish that is to immediately announce a community forum to be held well in advance of the Oct. 23 meeting at which the board is scheduled to officially decide on the closures. The event should be open to everyone, and it shouldn’t end until district officials have provided parents all the information they need to make choices about their children’s future.

This is a critical moment in the relationship between the district and the people it serves. District leaders must treat it with the weight it merits – and that means more transparency. Officials can start by bringing everyone together until every question is answered.

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