More than a year ago, Derreice Bretz bought a house in Mills across from the elementary school named for the small town. Her daughter would be starting kindergarten in the fall of 2017, and Derreice wanted to be close.
Then the school closed. The community had decided to shutter the aging building and move into a new, larger school in west Casper.
Derreice sent her daughter to Mountain View Elementary, a school several blocks west of her home. It wasn’t across the street. But it was — is — the last school in Mills.
“A lot of residents, they take their kids here,” she said.
But come June, Mountain View, too, might close. On Sept. 29, the Natrona County School District announced that its board was considering closing four schools: Willard, University Park, Frontier and Mountain View. Officials have said falling enrollment and budget cuts — both brought on by a downturn in the economy — may have doomed the schools.
They’re small and inefficient, officials say. There are 970 empty elementary seats in the district, which must cut millions in the coming years. Students can be taught elsewhere, and the costs of principals and administrative staff can be cut.
But to many families and students, a school’s size isn’t a detriment. It’s their neighborhood school, even if they don’t live in the neighborhood. They know everyone.
The four schools have something else in common: All four are Title I schools, as were Mills and Grant Elementary, which the board voted to close last year. In these schools, at least 40 percent of students come from low-income backgrounds. The schools receive additional funding for schoolwide programs to help support those kids.
Many families don’t know what they’ll do if, on Oct. 23, the board votes to close the schools. Many parents feel angry.
That’s where Derreice is. On Thursday afternoon, she sat in her car outside of Mountain View, listening to music and waiting for her daughter to finish school. She wondered what would come next.
“I’m not too happy,” she said.
She’s stuck paying for her house for the next 30 years, she said, so moving isn’t an option. She’s worried about overcrowding at other schools. Her daughter likes Mountain View. She likes her friends. Where will they go if the school closes?
“I think they have a point that Mills is not taken care of as much as Casper,” she said of other concerned parents. The town of Mills is concerned, too: On Friday afternoon, the town council passed a resolution opposing the closure of Mountain View. Council members urged residents to go to the school district’s Monday board meeting to speak up for the last school in town.
But Derreice thinks the board has already made its decision.
Board members say they’re sensitive to the pain they’d create by closing schools, but they’re adamant that they have no choice.
“I just can’t believe we have to do this,” board member Dana Howie said. “I totally understand the numbers. The last thing we want to do is lay people off. All the board members are aware of it. We’re all just agonizing over it.”
The four schools checked all of the right boxes, the board members say, and the recommendations had nothing to do with the schools’ Title I status. The schools had too few students in a district with nearly a thousand empty seats. There are too many administrators for those students in a time of slimming budgets.
“Every school is a community, is a home. But the next school will be, too,” said board chairman Kevin Christopherson. “Everybody likes to think they’re nonreplaceable. Every school in the district will tell you the same thing. It’s tough closing schools. You hear it a lot, and it tugs at your heartstrings, but it is what it is.”
Shelby Middaugh lives in Bar Nunn but sent her first-grade daughter to Willard Elementary because it’s close to her “day-care lady.” She likes Willard, she said, because it’s small. Her daughter is kind of an oddball, she said, but has found friends and happiness at Willard, a school of 230 kids off First Street in central Casper.
Shelby is angry. She knows the school is small, but it’s full. From where she was standing, outside her car on a cold morning before school, Shelby gestured toward the playground, where kids were running and playing, chasing each other and standing at the fence, watching their parents leave.
“Look at that playground,” she said. “That is enough kids.”
Like Derreice, Shelby doesn’t yet know what she’ll do. A friend is considering homeschooling. Shelby says she can’t do that — she has to work. She’s worried about her daughter in a new school.
Ideally, Shelby would send her to another small school, where the girl won’t get lost in the shuffle.
“Kids can be so cruel,” she said.
But small schools, which generally have a maximum capacity of 230 or so students, are becoming a thing of the past in Natrona County. Officials looked hard at those schools because they’re inefficient, Christopherson said. With empty seats across the district, those students can fit elsewhere, and the district can save money on administrative costs.
He has said the district can save $500,000 a year in salaries alone by moving administrators into other positions or having them replace retiring employees elsewhere.
Julie Hornby, the principal of University Park — home to 199 students on the east side of Casper — said educators at the district’s small schools had figured they might be in danger. But she and her staff still “rationalized” everything: They had just their gym painted. Why would the district paint the gym and then close the school? University Park must be safe.
Still, when word came down that Friday afternoon, she wasn’t surprised.
“We had some idea that eventually this might be coming our way,” she said.
But that doesn’t make it easier.
“I mean, you’re small,” Hornby said, her voice wavering. “You’re close with kids, you know? I’ve known most of these kids since preschool.”
She smiled and shook off the emotion. She said that a few weeks before the announcement, on another Friday, she met with University Park staff. They all thought she would be delivering news of a closure. She told them no, she would never tell them that the school was closing on a Friday afternoon, just before the start of a weekend.
When she received word on Sept. 29, she called the staff together.
“I said, ‘All right guys, remember how I told you I wouldn’t call you together on a Friday to tell you if I received information about us closing?’” Hornby said, laughing. “‘Well, I lied. So here it is.’”
Megan Fleetwood is mad.
She’s mad that Mountain View, where two of her children go, might close. She’s mad that the district is spending money the way it is. She’s mad that Mills seems to be getting left behind.
“In Casper, there’s an elementary every 12 blocks,” she said.
Megan laughed when asked what she would do if the school closed.
“I would try to relocate out of the county,” she said, leaning over the steering wheel of her blue SUV outside of school last week. “I don’t want to support the district.”
She’s heard the reasoning from officials. Her voice rising, she repeated what Michael Jennings, the district’s executive director of human resources, told the media when the closure proposal was announced: The schools are small and inefficient.
“They want to filter us into the bigger schools,” Megan concluded, adding that she thinks the district wants to take the Title I funding that the four schools receive and shift it into those buildings. “We’re the poverty area. We’re not thought of. It’s easier to cast us aside.”
All four school board members who spoke with the Star-Tribune stressed that socioeconomic factors played no role in selecting the schools that may be closed.
“It’s strictly coincidental” that all four are Title I, said board member Toni Billings.
“I’ve had people ask me that,” Howie said. “As far as I can tell, it’s not a consideration. Those are the older schools.”
The schools just fit what the district was looking for, officials say. Willard and University Park were both at or near maximum capacity. But neither has room to grow, board members said, and their student populations can be absorbed elsewhere.
Mountain View has experienced falling enrollment for at least five years. It’s currently at less than half capacity. Frontier is the smallest of the traditional middle schools in Casper and lost 16 students compared with last fall.
The board members said that should the schools close, Title I money will follow the students to their new schools. Students will receive the help they need regardless of their new home. Howie said she was “absolutely” confident that other teachers would be prepared to handle students of any need.
“We have those support services throughout the district,” Christopherson said. “They’re going to get the services.”
“It still isn’t real,” Hornby, the principal at University Park said. “We’re all still, ‘It’s a recommendation,’ so we’re hanging onto that.”
What will happen to several hundred students is still in the air. The board will consider the recommendation on Oct. 23 at a meeting at Kelly Walsh High School. It’s unclear what the final vote will be.
Christopherson said he supports the recommendation but isn’t sure what the full board will do. Howie is concerned about closing Mountain View because it’s the only school in Mills. She said she doesn’t want to shutter any building, but Mountain View is especially difficult.
She said she was continuing to look for ways to avoid closures and wondered how the communities would feel if some of the closures were delayed.
“If it’s going to be inevitable, which is best?” she said. “Peel the Band-Aid off a little at a time or just rip it off? ... I’m still trying to decide.”
Board member Dave Applegate said he would make his decision over the next two weeks, as the board receives more input from the community. Billings said she was saddened but understood why all of the schools were recommended for closure.
For some of the parents, the decision already seems final. Megan, whose children go to Mountain View, said she’d reached out to the board and they responded to her concerns. But she thinks their minds are already made up.
Shelby, whose daughter goes to Willard, agreed. But she’s waiting to break the news to her little “oddball.”
“I haven’t told my daughter yet,” Shelby said. “She still has light in her eyes.”
Sen. Cale Case doesn’t dislike wind power, but he believes that putting up wind turbines reduces the beauty of Wyoming’s wide open panorama, its steppes and its sagebrush-coated hills. And the Republican senator from Lander believes wind should be taxed for taking away that view.
View sheds were just one of a host of issues raised at a recent two-day wind forum in Laramie. It was a who’s who of Wyoming’s wind interests, gathering everyone from wind CEOs to county commissioners to biologists to talk about the future of wind in Wyoming.
Nearly a decade ago, there was a wind boom in Wyoming, and the state laid out regulations for the industry and debated where wind turbines should be built and whether their impact on wildlife and the environment was worth the benefits.
In the intervening years, it’s fair to say that the wind power industry has changed dramatically and now the state is facing a second, larger and more prolonged boom of wind development. The build-out is swiftly moving ahead at a time when many in Wyoming are somewhat distracted and state leaders are stressed. The fossil fuel economy that keeps taxes low and services high is frayed. Every public sector in the state has had to tighten its belt, and no one knows how long reduced revenue from oil, gas and coal is going to last.
Various experts at the wind forum in a snow-covered Laramie last week noted Wyoming wind’s potential to alleviate some of the pain of a busted economy. Others addressed why wind matters in the context of changing energy markets across the country. Some pointed out that there are downsides, and they should be weighed against wind’s offer of new jobs and new revenue in Wyoming.
“This was meant to be an emerging issues forum. We didn’t have answers, and we didn’t expect answers,” said Robert Godby, director of UW’s Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy, on Tuesday. “We have a very large potential opportunity here … We don’t control what is going on outside (of the state), but those outside influences are creating a major opportunity for us. Simultaneously, they are creating major challenges.”
This may not be the first time the state has looked at how to place wind on a landscape shared with agriculture and unique wildlife, but this time, the farms are simply bigger. Proposed wind farms, like the 3,000-megawatt Chokecherry Sierra Madre near Rawlins, dwarf the 100-megawatt farms built nearly a decade ago.
“This is an issue of scale, and these issues of scale magnify the potential impacts and increase the concerns that many people have,” Godby said during the wind conference.
Wyoming is currently ranked 15th for installed wind capacity, falling far behind states like Texas and Iowa. But projects currently proposed could double that.
Will Wyoming benefit financially? Surely. But part of what the forum wanted to explore was what Wyomingites really want, said Nicole Korfanta, director of UW’s Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources. The Institute hosted the conference alongside the school’s Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy.
To Case, one of the lawmakers who has floated an increase to the state’s wind production tax, the state should be compensated for wind.
Wyoming is the only state that has a tax on wind power, and increasing that charge to developers comes up nearly every year.
“Wind is a renewable resource, but where those wind farms are, they will be there forever. And they will sever something very important to you,” Case told the crowd. “We need a tax that is commensurate with the benefits that the best wind in the western grid provides.”
A powerful momentum is carrying the current wind build-out, and it is not necessarily being driven by Wyoming’s choices. There is an increasing demand for wind power in other areas of the country, reduced clogging on transmission lines from declines in coal power and a number of companies lining up to make money harnessing Wyoming’s wind.
In addition to Chokecherry, a project that’s been planned for more than a decade, Viridis Eolia wants to put 800 turbines near Medicine Bow and has launched a program to train workers. PacifiCorp, the largest utility in Wyoming, wants to spend nearly $3 billion adding new turbines, enlarging older ones and laying transmission lines, all before 2020.
At times speakers were imploring, asking Wyoming to face the challenges to its economy by accepting wind as a part of the future.
Wyoming has a strong sense of its own identity and its core values, but it has to have a healthy economy to keep those values alive, said Lloyd Drain, former director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority.
“If the average citizen in Wyoming can’t make a living wage, you’re not going to have to worry about values, because there ain’t going to be anybody here,” Drain said, advocating for wind. “It’s unfortunate, but Wyoming coal production is going to be a third or even half … that equates to a lot of jobs.”
Despite the flurry of activity in wind, many in Wyoming are unaware of just what could happen next. Wind farms have been proposed, and not all have advanced, in the years since the state first addressed its wind energy future, said Korfanta, from Ruckelhaus.
“We were really trying to take the temperature of the public to find out, what are the sentiments around wind energy?” she said. “We really didn’t know. We were trying to get all of those voices in one forum. That just hasn’t happened in a really long time.”
The conference brought up such a plethora of challenges and opportunities that it would be difficult to say a central direction emerged from the two days in Laramie.
However, whatever outsiders believe about green energy in the Cowboy State, whatever worries people who live in the state hold about more turbines on the horizon or renewable energy in general, wind is here. Wyoming has some immediate decisions to make about what the industry offers and how far it should spread in the years to come, experts say.
“What we really need to do is stop and talk to one another. We need to engage and consider these other points of view,” said Godby, the economist from UW, as he closed out the conference Tuesday. “We all come to this issue with our own lens — how we’re involved in it. A social decision like this requires thinking about many different perspectives.”
Local officials never suspected that Lisa Whetstone was stealing from the town of Mills: It was a random state audit in 2015 that revealed the then-treasurer had embezzled roughly $60,000 from the town.
Whetstone, who was ordered this year to repay the funds and serve five years of supervised probation, used the town’s credit card for personal expenses and stole money she was supposed to deposit into a government bank account.
Her crimes aren’t unique in Wyoming. State audits catch town officials embezzling about every three years, but due to a shortage of funds and staff these audits aren’t happening on a regular basis in small towns, according to Pam Robinson, the administrator for the public funds division of the Department of Audit.
Mills Mayor Seth Coleman said the town had not been audited in nearly three decades when Whetstone was caught, and other towns throughout the state are in similar situations.
The Department of Audit released a report last month that revealed that 13 of the 79 small towns in Wyoming have not been audited by the state — or by an independently hired CPA—in at least a decade.
Two of these towns, Edgerton and Midwest, are in Natrona County.
The state used to audit small-town governments at least every four years — until the department’s budget was cut in 1992, Robinson said. Small-town governments were not audited by the department again until a budget increase in 2005 allowed the audits to resume on a limited basis.
The state defines small towns as those with a population of under 4,000.
Auditing requirements for small towns vary from state to state.
Requirements in Idaho are based on a town’s expenditures, not population, said April Renfro, the manager for the audit division at the Legislative Services Office. Renfro said municipalities with expenditures of over $250,000 are required to have an annual audit done by a CPA, which is then submitted to the office.
In Colorado, all towns regardless of expenditures or population are required to hire a CPA to perform an annual audit and then submit the report to the Office of the State Auditor, according to Stelios Pavlou, the office’s communications specialist.
Although Wyoming law does not require small towns to be audited, Robinson said some towns routinely hire CPAs. Others skip this step.
The town of Mills previously opted for the latter option, but Whetstone’s arrest and conviction sparked a series of changes: The town purchased a more advanced accounting software system, financial duties that used to fall solely on the town treasurer are now shared by the town clerk and a CPA is hired each year to conduct an audit.
The incident in Mills didn’t lead to changes in the nearby town of Evansville because the municipality already had those checks and balances in place, according to Town Clerk Janelle Underwood.
But every small town in Natrona County can’t afford these safeguards.
Bert Smith, the clerk treasurer for Midwest, said the town is working with a limited budget and cannot afford a CPA’s services, which she said would cost at least $10,000.
Smith noted that financial duties used to be split between the clerk treasurer and a deputy clerk but that the deputy clerk position was eliminated in 2016 due to budgetary restrictions.
“I’m the only one that deals with the money,” she said.
Smith explained that the town keeps track of its finances with in-house audits, which are conducted each year by herself, another city employee or a council member. The clerk treasurer said she believes this measure is effective at protecting the town’s funds, and added that she’s never heard town residents express concerns.
That said, Smith said that regular state audits would be helpful.
“I have nothing to hide,” she said. “So if the state had someone who would actually do the small-town audits, then yeah, why wouldn’t you want to do that?”
Cindy Aars, the clerk treasurer for Edgerton, echoed those sentiments.
Edgerton hasn’t been audited by the state or a CPA in at least 20 years, and hiring an accountant is currently out of the question given the town’s tight budget, according to Aars.
“We lost a lot of our revenue the past year, just in sales tax revenue,” she explained.
Pointing out that she hasn’t had a raise in three years, Aars said hiring another employee to share financial duties would also be too expensive.
However, the clerk treasurer explained that she makes every effort to keep Edgerton City Council informed about all financial matters, and said she frequently has other city employees looking over her shoulder at work.
“It’s not like I’m hiding in a back room,” she said, adding that two signatures are required on all town checks.
Like Midwest, Edgerton also conducts self-audits each year to keep track of funds, Aars said.
Many municipalities throughout the state are facing serious economic challenges stemming from low sales tax revenue and concerns over the certainty of state funding. Wyoming is one of a few states that do not give cities or counties independent taxing authority, which means municipalities are largely reliant on appropriations from the Wyoming Legislature. City and county government leaders are worried that these appropriations are in jeopardy, as the state faces budget restrictions due to weak energy prices.
Wyoming Association of Municipalities Executive Director Rick Kaysen said the association believes it’s essential to protect a town’s funds but also recognizes that limited budgets are a valid challenge for towns and the state.
While Kaysen encouraged town council members to take an active role in their town’s finances, he said officials must decide what’s best for their individual municipality when it comes to auditing.
“There is not a silver bullet. … It’s an ongoing discussion,” he said.
Despite the struggling economy, Carisa Hensley, the town clerk and treasurer for Bar Nunn in Natrona County, said the town has opted to pay a CPA to conduct annual audits for at least two decades.
However, Hensley said she considers audits a “backup” when it comes to protecting the town’s money and believes having an active council that stays involved in financial matters is a more effective safeguard.
The Department of Audit’s 2017 Report on Evaluation Requirements for Small Cities and Towns supports Hensley’s belief that audits are not the most important method for detecting fraud.
“An auditor will consider the possibility of fraud and will design their testing to detect fraud in the context of having an impact on financial statements, (but) audits are not a significant method of fraud detection,” states the report.
The majority of fraud investigations are launched because of tips, according to the report, which suggests that a “formal intake system of tips” should be established by state and local agencies.
However, the report still concludes that external audits are useful for municipalities.
“An audit will give assurance the town is accounting for its transactions properly, that internal controls are in place, and the financial statements produced by the town are representative of the financial activities and position of the town for the audited period,” it states.
Robinson couldn’t comment on whether Wyoming has plans to change its auditing practices. But according to the report, the state and local section of the Public Funds Division would need to bring on eight additional auditors and one manager to audit all 79 small towns every five years.