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School Board

Superintendent Steve Hopkins and Natrona County school board members Rita Walsh, left, and Dana Howie listen to comments from the public during a school board meeting in 2017.

Superintendent Steve Hopkins, who’s led the Natrona County School District for the past six years, will retire in June, the district announced Tuesday.

Hopkins, who was the district’s associate superintendent of business services prior to taking over as superintendent in 2013, will likely be replaced by Mike Jennings. Jennings is the district’s executive director of human resources. He was previously a middle school principal.

The district’s school board will vote on confirming Jennings as the next superintendent later this month. Via a spokeswoman, district officials declined to comment, citing the looming board vote to confirm Jennings’ hiring.

Jennings and spokeswoman Tanya Southerland had both declined to comment on Hopkins’ future Monday night.

An accountant in private practice before joining the district, Hopkins took over the district in July 2013 from Joel Dvorak. The district’s money man had spent 17 years in the second-largest district in the state, rising from a rank-and-file accountant position to one of the top education officials in Wyoming.

His heir apparent, Jennings, comes from a more traditional educator background, rising from building leader to cabinet member and now likely superintendent. Like Hopkins, his coronation has largely been private and confidential.

Hopkins’ tenure

When Hopkins was hired, the move drew some criticism — including from one of his own school board members — because it was a closed process. Morale within the district was reportedly low, and the administration was recovering from a public fight with the state’s School Facilities Commission.

The district move on from that spat and, under Hopkins’ watch, recently finished a wave of construction that has touched much of Natrona County. Kelly Walsh and NC both underwent extensive renovations, while Roosevelt was rebuilt from the ground up. Pathways, conceived under Dvorak and previous school boards, came to fruition, while new elementary schools were built and old ones remodeled.

The growth would not last. Hopkins’ tenure would be rocked first by seismic shifts in school funding. In 2016, the bottom fell out on the energy market here, prompting heavy cuts from the state Legislature. Enrollment in Natrona County began to drop as the population in Wyoming cratered, and the district — previously told to plan for a blossoming elementary population in the coming years — was instead faced with hundreds of empty seats.

In all, the district has cut or will cut $12 million since the bust. The board has given Hopkins latitude to guide that work. Under the recommendations of his staff, the board voted to close five schools: first Grant in June 2017, then Mountain View, University Park, Frontier and Willard a year later.

The move will save the district $2.5 million a year while filling empty seats. Perhaps most importantly, the closures helped avoid the sorts of layoffs seen in other districts across the state. Still, it drew frustration from some in the community, who lined up for hours to protest the closures at public meetings.

Under Hopkins’ watch, the district began instituting strategic goals to track its progress over the years and set expectations for new benchmarks. While the district fell short this year on some of those goals, overall graduation rate here has ticked up during Hopkins’ tenure, as have test scores.

Navigating scandal

The sprawling district of 13,000-some students and 30 schools has not been scandal-free. An inappropriate skit in 2014 at NC prompted staff changes there. A gas leak at Midwest prompted the evacuation and yearlong closure of that building in 2017. Allegations of extreme bullying at Kelly Walsh in 2018 prompted the district to confront bullying issues within its schools. Students and families have reported issues ranging from racism to sexual battery to bullying at the hands of teachers.

Just Monday night, Hopkins’ staff unveiled a response to several of those scandals. Administrators undertook a sweeping review of its bullying policies in 2018, ending with a revamp of its guidelines and the release of a standardized approach to disciplining students across the county. The district shifted how it interacts with the media. A public fight with the Star-Tribune over records related to bullying prompted the district to shift how it interacted with the media, an express concern of Hopkins.

Under a policy drafted by administrators and approved by the board last year, district officials say they will now release all they legally can to media during highly public incidents.

The list of other shifts that have occurred in Natrona County between 2013 and now is long, from the transportation hub to the new plans to revamp Roosevelt. In his last two years, Hopkins has prioritized school safety, among other things, citing the need for a community response to the bloodshed in America’s schools.

Over his six years, Hopkins has cut a reliably private path: He rarely speaks at the end of school board meetings, beyond advising the board of when its next meeting is and praising the work of his staff. While he would speak with media, the members of his cabinet were more frequent names in newspapers and TV spots. Throughout much of the school funding crisis, he never publicly testified in front of legislators, though he was a constant presence at legislative meetings (it helps that one of his employees, NC’s Steve Harshman, is the House speaker and was a leading advocate for school funding). While other superintendents at large districts would raise the specter of lawsuits and joined coalitions to amplify their voices in the school funding fight, Natrona County’s chief executive stayed noticeably quiet, working with lawmakers — several of whom hail from Casper — behind the scenes.

A school official called Hopkins a “lighthouse” Monday night, and he’s often praised by staff for his steady hand on the wheel. Throughout the financial crisis, when the board considered extreme scenarios like shuttering the rural schools, the board consistently praised Hopkins for his management of the district’s finances.

His retirement, long rumored around the district, is typical of his tenure: quiet, handled behind closed doors, with a statement and a call for respecting the board’s process ready.

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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