Natrona County School District has 900 empty elementary school seats as the new academic year draws near, and officials are seriously considering shuttering more buildings because of the excess capacity.
“(T)here is a need to right size district facilities,” concluded a press release from the district sent Tuesday.
The closure of an elementary school or other district facility is far from certain, officials said. They are still awaiting a more concrete enrollment count, which will be available in mid-September. But officials could know by mid-October, said Michael Jennings, executive director of human services. He added that the district wants to inform any potentially affected families and staff as early as possible.
Jennings and Rick Skatula, the executive director for school improvement, stressed that no specific building has been targeted for closure. Every school and facility in the district is under review, and officials are examining each based on its capacity, its enrollment, its programs, its staff, maintenance needed, and the condition of the building and the site upon which it sits.
Last November, the district announced that it would close Grant Elementary, which had excess capacity and needed more than $500,000 in repairs. At that time, the district had around 570 empty seats, Jennings said.
At Grant, all staff — with the exception of those leaving the district voluntarily — were reassigned to other schools within the district. Though it’s unclear what the future holds as lawmakers consider a complete overhaul of the state school funding system, the district has maintained that it will do all it can to avoid layoffs.
School closures, however, are “being seriously considered by the board construction steering committee,” Jennings said of the group of board members who oversee the district’s facilities.
Officials also announced the closure of the former Jefferson School — which acted as the district’s main office for special education services. Personnel who worked in that building will now work out of the main district headquarters. The building will likely be put up for sale. Westwood School will also close and be vacated by next summer.
The district finds itself caught between past expectations and a post-bust reality. For years leading up to 2015, elementary enrollment was growing at a steady clip, and Casper officials were told they needed to create space to accommodate the influx of students.
Construction money was still flowing steadily into state coffers, and the district authorized the construction of Journey Elementary — which can hold 420 students and will open in the coming weeks — and an addition to Bar Nunn Elementary.
That was before the economic downturn and before families — taking with them Natrona County students — left the state in search of work. Since then, elementary enrollment here has been declining. Overall enrollment is nearly flat, but that’s largely because of the strong growth of younger students during the pre-bust period.
The enrollment piece is critical to the broader education funding puzzle in Wyoming. Each district receives state money per student, so as enrollment has fallen in the past two years, Natrona County schools have lost $2 million. The enrollment drop helped create a hole in the district’s coffers and caused excess capacity, which in turn makes schools more vulnerable to closure.
In November, when the district announced Grant’s closure, they revealed that several other buildings — including the old Roosevelt High School, Fairgrounds Center, Mills Elementary, North Casper School and the Star Lane Center — would also shutter.
To date, Roosevelt and Fairgrounds have been sold. Skatula said there were groups interested in both Grant and Mills. Star Lane has moved its services to the Pathways Innovation Center campus.
The district will also continue to examine what to do with other facilities, like the McKinley Annex and its old bus garage.