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Natrona County School Board Votes To Close Four Schools

Mountain View Elementary graduate and teacher urges the Natrona County School District  Board to not close the school.    Tom Morton, Townsquare Media
Mountain View Elementary teacher Debi Coca urges the Natrona County School District Board to not close the school.      Tom Morton, Townsquare Media

The Natrona County School District board of trustees on Monday voted to close three elementary schools — Mountain View, Willard and University Park — and Frontier Middle School next year.

“This is the worst board meeting we’ll (probably) ever have,” trustee Raymond Catellier said after the 8-1 vote that followed a nearly two-and-a-half hour meeting at Kelly Walsh High School.

More than a hundred parents, students, teachers and community members filled the school’s commons area.

During the public comment period before the vote, more than 45 of them pleaded with the board to not close the schools, and to not let the four high schools in the district phase out the Star Lane Center’s problem-based learning program discussed earlier Monday.

Debi Coca said she attended Mountain View Elementary, now teaches there, and her three children attend there.

Only a fifth of the students there are from the Mountain View area of Mills, and the rest choose to attend there. Mountain View, like Willard and University Park, is a federal Title I school, Coca said.

Mountain View emphasizes emotional-social learning to address personal issues, she said. “If you’re broken on the inside, you’re not learning (anything).”

Board members said they could empathize with what Coca and others were saying, but their hand was forced by declining enrollment leaving about an excess capacity of a thousand seats and the need to cut $4 million from the budget.

“Nobody’s happy about this,” board Chairman Kevin Christopherson said after the meeting.

The closures will save the district about $2.5 million, and eliminate about 700 seats, but they possibly don’t end the problems, Christopherson said. “If we keep losing students, or if the Legislature ups the (student to teacher) ratios, we’re going to end up with a significant number of empty seats again.”

Last month, the board’s construction steering committee assigned to review buildings and efficiency recommended the closures because of the declining enrollment and excess seat capacity. Enrollment directly affects how much money the district receives from the state.

Trustee Angela Coleman cast the sole dissenting vote after an unsuccessful amendment to exempt Mountain View Elementary, the only school in Mills. Her husband is Mills Mayor Seth Coleman, who with many town residents strongly opposed the recommendation to close the school.

Trustee Dave Applegate brought forward the amendment because Mountain View is geographically isolated, he said in a conference call.

But through a statement read by board Chairman Kevin Christopherson after the vote, Applegate said if the amendment failed he would vote to close the schools because of the overriding budget concerns.

The decision to not exempt Mountain View was hard, but necessary, trustees said.

Debbie McCullar, who was a teacher for 37 years, said it would not be fair to set aside one school, and there was no guarantee that Mountain View would be spared if the board faced a similar decision next year.

Clark Jensen said he recognized the impacts the closures will have on students, families and communities.

But not acting also will affect them, Jensen said. “We either close buildings or let teachers go,” he said. The board has decided to not lay off teachers.

Catellier added the board can’t delay the decision without consequences. “If we don’t do this now, we’ll be kicking the can down the road.”

Angela Coleman said the committee that recommended the closures gave the public less than four weeks to respond. The board should have taken more time to consider other options, she said.

But Toni Billings, a parent and former teacher, tearfully responded that the board has been looking hard at these issues for three years.

The board approved the actions on these district facilities:

  • Vacate and sell the Special Education Service Center (the former Jefferson Elementary School), 500 S. Jefferson; and the unoccupied North Casper Elementary School, 1014 N. Glenarm St.
  • Vacate and mothball the unoccupied Westwood Elementary School, 2300 Bellaire.
  • Vacate and mothball Mountain View Elementary School, 400 N. Third St., Mills; Willard Elementary School, 129 N. Elk St.; and University Park Elementary School, 600 N. Huber Drive.
  • Close Frontier Middle School, 900 S. Beverly St. Casper Classical Academy will continue to occupy the building.

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