Frontier Middle School and University Park, Mountain View and Willard elementary schools will close next year as Natrona County education officials grapple with falling enrollment and a statewide funding crunch.

After more than two hours of public comment, the Natrona County School District’s board voted 8-1 to shutter the schools, which are now home to roughly 740 students. They will close at the end of the academic year.

“I’m troubled we have this situation, but it’s the reality,” said trustee Clark Jensen, who voted in favor of closing the four schools.

A late amendment — submitted by trustee Dave Applegate — attempted to remove Mountain View — the last in the Mills community — from the recommendation. It was supported by Angela Coleman, but the rest of the board voted against it. Members said it was unfair to single out and save the school while the other three faced the ax.

After the vote, several trustees wept. Ray Catellier said he hoped this was the worst board meeting they’d ever have and that the measures the district had taken would be enough.

“This is not what I got on the school board to do,” added trustee Toni Billings, who struggled to keep emotion from rising into her voice.

Coleman, the sole vote against the recommendation, said through tears that she didn’t think four weeks was enough time for the board to fully consider the closures. She said that the board could’ve found other solutions.

Community responds

That frustration and pain was shared before the vote by family members and teachers who implored the board to keep the schools open.

One grandmother of a Willard student said her autistic son had benefited from his time at the central Casper school.

“To you, it’s economics, but it matters,” she told board members. “You don’t understand the impact, moving place to place to place.”

She asked the young boy, who clung to her side, if he wanted to say anything. He shook his head no. She asked if he wanted her to tell them to keep his school open. He nodded.

“He says keep his school open,” she said, turning back to the board.

Mills Town Councilman Ron Wales asked, “What is a town without a school?”

Frontier teacher Joscelyne Pruett said she knew her school had struggled academically, but that its enrollment had grown in recent years.

“I’d call that a win,” she said.

The recommendation’s passage was far from certain. Since the proposal was unveiled on Sept. 29, board members repeatedly said that they were unsure where they stood, for a number of reasons. Mountain View was the last school in Mills. Four schools at once was a lot, and the pain the closures would cause would be significant.

All four schools are Title I, meaning they educate high numbers of students from low-income families. However, district officials have insisted that resources and funding will follow the at-risk students to their new homes.

Coleman, the newest board member and a Mills resident, came out strongly against shuttering Mountain View, University Park and Willard. The Mills Town Council passed a resolution opposing Mountain View’s closure.

Enrollment falls

Still, in the run up to Monday’s meeting, board members insisted they had little choice: Closing the four schools could save the district $2.5 million a year, money that could prove vital as the district faces the dire and dual challenges of falling enrollment and dwindling state funds, both brought on by the downturn in the energy economy. After years of growth — which prompted the district to begin building new elementary space — the district began losing students rapidly.

Since 2014, roughly 350 younger students have left Natrona County classrooms. As of Monday night’s vote, there were 970 empty seats in the district. University Park and Willard were at capacity, but they’re small: Their students could fill spots elsewhere while the district cut down on administrative cost. Frontier is the smallest traditional middle school in Casper and, judging by trustee comments, was already living on borrowed time. Mountain View was at less than half capacity.

The potential $2.5 million savings is significant: As the students have left, so, too, have the dollars. The district has already cut more than $4 million and will have to slash at least $8 million more in the coming years.

That’s almost certainly a best-case scenario: Currently, lawmakers are re-examining the entirety of the state’s education system as they attempt to fill the school funding deficit. Superintendent Steve Hopkins reminded board members Monday afternoon that he has yet to hear a legislator say that the cuts are done. The concern isn’t if there will be more reductions. It’s how severe they will be.

School closures have become a part of Natrona County’s plan to tackle the crisis. In November, the board voted unanimously to close Grant Elementary, a 94-year-old school with too few students and too many needed repairs. (Mills Elementary also closed, though that was a decision the school’s community made, officials have said.)

Hours before Monday night’s meetings, board chairman Kevin Christopherson asked Hopkins if the district had a plan B if the recommendation failed to pass. Board officials had suggested in the past that school closures were a way for the district to avoid laying off staff as it shoulders its share of statewide cuts.

Hopkins was circumspect, noting the presence of media. He said he didn’t want to put the board in a position where they felt they had to close schools to avoid other reductions.

“I don’t know if there are any easy cuts left,” he said. “From here on out, everything becomes very impactful.”

In the end, there was no need for a plan B. The board followed the recommendation and will close four more schools. Whether it’s enough going forward remains to be seen.

“This year hurts, and next year is going to hurt even more,” Christopherson warned.

Other members said they hoped the closure vote would be the hardest hit they would deliver to a community that’s lost hundreds of students, millions of dollars and, as of Monday night, five schools.

“I sincerely hope we’ve taken care of the issues,” Catellier said, “that we can not do this ever again.”

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann