The closing of four Casper-area schools in 2018 marked several bitter endings.
For those four schools, the closures — approved by the Natrona County school board in October 2017 — were the end of their educational existence. Three of those schools — Mills’ Mountain View and Casper’s University Park and Willard — all now stand empty, “mothballed,” waiting for the day they may be needed again. The fourth, the failed experiment that was Frontier Middle, shared a building with another school. Its closure left not even a standing reminder that it had, for a decade, been home to a dwindling number of Casper children.
For the Natrona County School District, the closure marked the extinction of small schools. Superintendent Steve Hopkins told the Star-Tribune in June that was always going to happen, that the district had long planned a gradual move to larger facilities. But a precipitously declining enrollment and heavy budget cuts from the state Legislature hastened that plan. Closing the four schools meant saving $2.5 million a year. There are now just four non-rural schools in the county that have fewer than 300 students.
For Mills, the closure of Mountain View was the end of education in the small town west of Casper. Mills Elementary closed, with the consent of the school community, in June 2017. Mountain View, which is technically located outside of the town’s borders but only by the strictest definition, was significantly under capacity, and the district needed to save money.
That argument did not satisfy the town. In October 2017, two weeks before the school board vote, the town council passed a resolution opposing the impending closure. In January, the town sued the district, alleging the closure was unlawful for a variety of reasons.
As the lawsuit festered, Mills Mayor Seth Coleman took the lectern at a school board meeting in March and accused a former board chairman — Kevin Christopherson, who is still on the board — of bribery. Christopherson told the Star-Tribune that he had emailed Coleman and told him that if the town purchased Mills Elementary, which the district had been attempting unsuccessfully to sell, then district officials would set aside the proceeds of the sale for the future reopening of Mountain View, should the school be needed again. Christopherson said he was trying to make a deal that would benefit everybody; he denied that it was a bribe.
Coleman — whose wife, Angela, serves on the board — derisively referred to the board members as aristocrats and told them they could take Christopherson’s offer and “shove it.”
The lawsuit would be dismissed in April, and Mountain View would close in June.
The closures also marked the lowest point of the education-funding crisis for the Natrona County School District. That’s certainly relative: Other districts across the state have had to institute layoffs, something officials here have been able to avoid via the closures.
The economic bust of a few years ago left the state facing a sizable hole in its school funding going forward. Lawmakers have considered a number of solutions, leaning heavily on cuts. To absorb them, officials here have eliminated dozens of positions, slashed budgets and closed five schools — four last June and one, Grant Elementary, in June 2017.
Time will tell, but there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic that those closures will be the low point. Enrollment — both here and across the state — has ticked back upward, as has the state’s economy. District officials have said they have no plans or appetite to close any more schools. Barring significant legislative action, the district shouldn’t be facing the sizable cuts it had been forced to deal with when it made the decision to shutter those four buildings.