The Natrona County School District will consider closing three elementary schools, closing one middle school, and vacating three other buildings at end of the 2017-2018 school year, district officials announced today.

"The biggest factor we have in driving it is the reduction in student enrollment," the district's executive director of human resources Michael Jennings said during a news conference.

"And obviously the second driver is the downturn in the economy and the school funding crisis," Jennings said.

The board of trustees will decide on the closures at its Oct. 23 meeting. If that happens, district personnel will begin meeting with parents to advise them about options and enrollment.

The district is aware of the profound effects of the recommended closures, Jennings said. "First of all, our thoughts and emotions are with our families and our staff members who are impacted by decisions to close the schools."

These are only recommendations so far, said Jennings, who was joined by Dennis Bay, the district's executive director of human resources and district services, and Rick Skatula, executive director for school improvement.

They are on the construction steering committee that also recommended, with the district's board of trustees approving, the closing of Grant Elementary School last year.

The committee looked at all the district's buildings and their conditions, maintenance needs, enrollment trends, available seats and other factors.

Jennings said last year closing Grant would still result in 312 empty seats in schools.

That projection was off by a factor of three, with new enrollment figures showing an excess capacity of 970 seats.

This is the fourth consecutive year of declining enrollment, and enrollment directly affects how much money the district receives from the state, Jennings said.

These are the proposed actions for the following schools:

  • Special Education Service Center, 500 S. Jefferson -- vacate and sell.
  • Westwood Elementary School, 2300 Bellaire -- vacate and mothball.
  • North Casper Elementary School, 1014 N. Glenarm St. -- vacate and sell.
  • Mountain View Elementary School, 400 N. Third St., Mills -- vacate and mothball.
  • Willard Elementary School, 129 N. Elk St. -- vacate and mothball.
  • University Park Elementary School, 600 N. Huber Drive -- vacate and mothball.
  • Frontier Middle School, 900 S. Beverly St. -- closure.
  • Willow Creek, 24135 W. Willow Creek Rd., Kaycee -- vacated and mothballed (2016).

If the board approves the closures of the four occupied schools, the district will save about $500,000 for each closed school, Skatula said.

And if the board of trustees approves the closures of the three elementary schools and Frontier Middle School, the district still will have 200 excess seats, Skatula said. That will allow the district to absorb a sudden influx of students.

That's why it's "mothballing" some buildings, he said.

Bay said "mothballing" means the district still owns the building, but it's closed and the state doesn't fully fund it for maintenance for three years.

It's cheaper to keep the building than to sell it and then need to construct a new one, Bay said.

The district has received inquiries from people interested in buying district buildings, although no one has asked specifically about the Special Education Service Center and North Casper Elementary, he added.

North Casper Elementary has been unoccupied and has been used for storage.

Other school buildings do not have students, either. Westwood has a couple of offices for information technology personnel. It was used for the Midwest School students this past year after unsafe levels of chemicals were detected in May 2016, Bay said.

The Special Education Service Center -- the former Jefferson school -- has only staff, and they will be transferred to the district's Central Services Building.

Willow Creek was closed because it had only one student.

The state has charged the districts with looking at being more efficient, and what happens with state funding models is outside the district's control, Jennings said.

Skatula said two of the elementary schools are small and near capacity, but they don't have any room to grow.

Smaller schools, such as Mountain View with 138 students, still need many of the same personnel that larger schools do as well as similar costs in utilities, he said. So the economies of scale favor closing them and transferring students to the larger schools, compared to Fort Casper Academy with 413 students, Skatula said.

"That was a strong driver in our decision," he said.

In the case of Frontier Middle School, which was built in the past decade, the school itself will close, but the building will remain open for the Casper Classical Academy.

District spokeswoman Tanya Southerland said district officials knew this would hit the community, the students, staff and teachers hard.

The announcement before the weekend would allow parents time to talk about the proposed closures with their children and what schools the children may want to attend in the next academic year, Southerland said.

The same reasons applied to the staff and teachers, she added.

The district will be receiving comments from the public for the next several weeks. To comment, send an email to mynchs.org.