BY BARBARA ANNE GREENE
The Big Horn County School District Four board of trustees voted 4-3 last week to close the Cloud Peak School (CP) after this school year. This is two years earlier than planned.
Originally serving as Manderson High School, the Cloud Peak School was built in 1956. The last senior class graduated in 1987 and the Hyattville/Manderson School District combined with the Basin School District.
The closure was one of the ways District Four was looking at to save money. Prior to the April 4 vote during a special meeting the district business manager Andy DeGraw presented a cost savings breakdown to the board. According to his numbers, over two years the district would save $760,000. The breakdown included utility costs, maintenance/supplies, mileage paid to staff to travel and staff reduction (one administrator, two certified and five classified positions). The utilities were based on some continued usage of the building for sports.
DeGraw pointed out that the money saved by staff losing one period due to travel would pay for a certified position. Superintendent Dave Kerby added that currently the district is losing five periods a day from staff driving back and forth between schools. Combining would add more staff time with kids.
He was asked to explain what would happen financially if CP were closed next year instead of this year. His response was that savings associated with closing CP would be higher in year one (around $600,000) due to the fact that they will reduce expenditures but still maintain revenue for the building next year. Revenue for the 2017-18 school year will be based on student enrollment reports submitted this June that will include data from CP. Savings in year two will drop due to a reduction in 2018-19 revenue when student enrollment is no longer reported from CP next June.
In DeGraw’s presentation there were also cost estimates for the new school buildings at the 60 percent design stage. When compared to budget there is a shortfall of $2,991,546. A list of potential shortfall remedies was given, as well. These included: bids coming in lower than budget, reducing the square footage of the new buildings, closing CP, selling teacherages, moving money from design to construction and getting additional money from the School Facilities Commission (SFC).
Board chair Audra Crouse opened the meeting up for audience questions. Art teacher Dineen Mueller asked several questions and expressed concerns. Her first comment was whether the board considered the possibility of losing students in the district with the staff reductions at Cloud Peak. She said that some of the staff could be seeking employment elsewhere and could take those students with them.
Another concern for Mueller was the difference between a middle school philosophy and a junior high philosophy. She is concerned that the backpacking, canoeing trips, etc. that the CP students enjoy now will cease if the students are moved to RHS.
“I don’t think that you can balance a budget with students sacrificing part of the culture,” Mueller said. “Middle school philosophy is very important to our culture. If you go to a junior high program you are scrapping those programs.”
Both Crouse and board member Deb Craft said those programs were not being scrapped. Kerby said that the programs may not be exactly like they are now, but they will have some of them. There will be discussions on how to do that. Board member Brenton Paxton asked Mueller why she thought the programs couldn’t continue. She said because there wouldn’t be the personnel. Paxton said he doesn’t think there will be a need to cut.
RHS math teacher Jim Hoffman pointed out that middle school has shorter periods. He also expressed concern about overcrowding. He gave an example about what he thinks would happen to the RHS library, noting, “Computers gone, tables probably gone, no room for guided reading books. We have no room to place the books. Those kind of programs are going to be modified or lost.”
RHS principal Tony Anson added to the discussion, stating, “Junior high was 7-12 back in the day, but we went to the middle school philosophy. It became their own building, their own culture. Now you put them back in. We’ve got kids that are in the same classes, same teachers and now we have a hard time doing that collaborative work that you would have if you had your own building with middle school.
“I’ve got seat time. I’ve got to have my kid in biology or calculus. But in middle school they just try to do that collaboration, but it’s hard to do in one building. We’ve got a science teacher that wants to work with a couple of teachers to keep the canoeing, but there is more than just a canoeing trip and a camping trip that makes up a middle school philosophy. It’s more of an interdisciplinary building.”
Crouse pointed out that the plan to have 7-12 grades in one building has been a part of the building plans for years, asking, “Has this been a concern all along or is this new?”
Anson responded with, “It should have been somewhat. You do have that separation, but you are still going to have some shared teachers.” Craft stated that this was the first time she has heard these concerns.
Anson then expressed his thoughts about the cost saving numbers of closing CP.
“Some of these figures disturb me in that we are saying we are saving that much just by closing Manderson,” he said. “To me, you are saying you are eliminating one administrator. I’m not going to be able to do half time at the elementary. So you are going to have to have at least a half time elementary. I’ve heard some people say that Mr. Kerby needs to serve the district as a fulltime superintendent. You need to think about that. Because if you are going to take Mr. Kaumo as halftime elementary, then that doesn’t become reimbursable. That’s $50,000 for that.
“Two certified were already going to be cut anyway. It has nothing to do with the middle school closure. It had to do with lower student numbers in the elementary. Five classifieds? I don’t see five. That’s the biggest part of your budget right there. The other thing I have concerns on with figures is if there is a 10 percent lower bid we get at $910,000 in savings. We can do that but then we are looking at cutting the vocational buildings off. That was $950,000. Then we are going to put it back in. So if we are saving $950,000 for cutting it off, how are you going to put it back in?”
DeGraw responded by saying that the district had toured other schools including Shoshoni, which chose not to build their Ag building stick built attached to the main building. They instead came back after construction of the school was completed and put up a metal building for Ag at about half of the cost with the same finishes as the stick built would have had. “So those numbers are real. They are legitimate. They’ve been vetted out,” he said.
Anson said he wasn’t arguing the numbers. He was stressing that if something is taken away and you build it yourself it becomes your (district’s) building., adding, “That also means that you are building it off of your money. You’re maintaining off your money.” DeGraw said that those points had all been a part of the discussion.
Crouse added that when School Facilities Division director Del McOmie was here, he thought that this was a good option. He also committed to going back to the legislature to have it built and it would not be an enhancement. It would be standard square footage that would get funded from major maintenance money.
Will it work together?
Mandy Sherbourne asked if there is a plan on how to consolidate and make it work for everyone, asking, “The middle school kids and the high school kids are all going to get the level of academic and athletic things that they currently get?” Again, Kerby responded by telling her that it is essential that there is a quality education program.
“There are a lot of schools across the nation that are in this type of configuration (grades 6-12 in one building),” he said. “The plan was in two years to have brand new schools with the K-5, 6-12 configuration. The suggestion is to do it a year early. With our certified staff we did reduce two (Cloud Peak). The high school staff is entirely intact. The schedules have been worked on. I don’t see them changing much except the possibility of adding band when we do this.
“Middle school teachers, as well, they are pretty much coming over intact. We’ve gone through the building to see if they are going to fit. Right now the capacity in this building (RHS) is 320. Years ago this was a 7-12 building and they had a lot more students than we currently have. I’m not going to say it’s ideal.”
He continued by saying he knows it’s inconvenient to have to move twice but that he feels confident a quality education will be provided for all students.
Special ed teacher Sam Buck said his concern was that some of the discussions should have happened before such a big decision was made.
“Now you’ve already made the decision and are just trying to make it work,” he said. “I don’t know if that is the best way to go about things, if you have a solid plan in place and there is time to implement it in the right way. And if the numbers work for us up there that’s great. If it is not planned out accordingly then, no, we are not providing the kids with the best educational opportunity.”
Kerby answered that he has had discussions with individual teachers at each school.
“We have not put together different teams to work it out,” he said. “We are going to be fully staffed. We are integrating the middle school and high school. There are some anxieties there. There are going to be some separations (between the grades for events such as dances). If this decision is made, number wise you don’t need three math teachers. You don’t need three English teachers. This district wants to keep them and wants to have some quality education programs. We bring these teachers together and ask how do we best serve the needs of the kids with these teachers. We could have some high level programs, get additional help for some low end kids.”
Parent Ben Coy expressed his concern that his 12-year-old would be facing and seeing the same things as his 18-year-old. Once again Kerby responded. He pointed out that the new school would also be grades 6-12 and that there will be some contact between middle schoolers and high schoolers. In RHS he and staff have walked around and mapped it out. For the most part middle school students will be in their own section. He has talked to other school districts that have similar configurations including K-12, adding, “It’s not cool for high school students to pick on younger kids.”
Board member Heath Hopkin said that he attended middle school and high school when RHS was 6-12 and there were not those types of problems. Later in the meeting this sentiment was echoed by audience members Linda Harp, School Resource Officer Kyle McClure and CJ Duncan. Anson said that the lunch schedules would be different so there would be no co-mingling there.
Parent and para-professional Dusty Ellis asked if the middle school was going to be open campus. She was told that middle school lunch would be closed campus.
Discussion continued with members of the board, audience, district and parents saying that they believe in the staff and the students. Former teacher and CP Principal Becky Allred said that she knows that each of the teachers have it in their hearts to do what it takes to get it done.
Kerby’s last comments before the board adjourned for an executive session were that for the district to move forward the issue about closing CP was bigger than just the staff. “It’s a community issue,” he said. “We need to get this school built and not lose this opportunity. If this puts us in a better position to move us forward to make this district better down the road, I think it is worth it and I know this staff can make it work.”
The board came back from the executive session with the 4-3 vote to close Cloud Peak. Each board member gave reasons why they were voting the way they were. For the closure were Audra Crouse, Chris Kampbell, Deb Craft and Heath Hopkin. Against were Greg Gloy, Kristin Schlattmann and Brenton Paxton.
The original motion was later revised to put in language saying that the move is pending Wyoming Department of Education (WDE) approval of the reconfiguration change. The district will have to submit an application requesting the move from three schools to two schools and WDE will have to approve it.