WYOMING SCHOOLS AT A CROSSROADS: Parents and Educators Relieved Two Rural Schools Will Remain Open

Albany County School District 1 considered closing elementary schools to cut costs

Centennial School was one of two rural Albany County School District 1 elementary schools that briefly faced temporary closure as the district works through a budget deficit. (Courtesy photo from Stephanie Murray)

By Elizabeth Sampson

Special to the Wyoming Truth

One day before parents and educators planned to speak out against the proposed closure of two rural schools at a school board meeting, Albany County School District 1 in Laramie announced Tuesday it was no longer considering mothballing those buildings as a cost-saving measure.

Harmony Elementary School in the Woods Landing-Jelm community and Centennial Elementary School in Centennial suddenly found themselves on the budgetary chopping block after a June 7 school board meeting. During a presentation about potential budget cuts, Superintendent John Goldhardt raised the possibility of temporarily closing both to help balance the district’s budget.

In an interview with the Wyoming Truth, Goldhardt said the decision to keep the schools open was, in part, the result of examining how the closures would have resulted in less state funding for the district.

Consultant Lu Beecham presented a draft 2024 budget to the board at its June 14 meeting which indicated the district is facing a $2.1 million deficit. But for many Harmony and Centennial families, a community school is more than a simple budget item.

“It is the heart of our community,” said Harmony teacher Stephanie Murray. “It’s where we hold our blood drives and voting and our cancer benefits. It’s not just a school.”

Shocked by the proposed closing, community members contacted board members and Goldhardt to oppose the plan. They also had intended to attend the June 14 meeting to advocate for keeping the schools open.

Once the district announced those closings were no longer being considered, parents and educators alike expressed relief the schools are off the chopping block.

Students from Harmony Elementary School near Woods Landing and Centennial Elementary School in Centennial climb to the top of Medicine Bow Peak together as part of their outdoor education program to kick-off the year. Community members were concerned when Albany County School District 1 proposed temporarily closing both schools as a cost- saving measure. (Courtesy photo from Stephanie Murray) 

“I’m so glad they heard our outcry for our local rural schools, because it definitely can feel like we are out of sight, out of mind,” said Kathryn Klingenberg, a Harmony parent.

Three schools, one principal

Part of the decision to keep the schools open can be chalked up to cold, hard accounting. Officials were swayed after a line-by-line deep dive into the budget revealed the closures would be a disadvantage under the state’s school funding model.

The state allocates a certain amount of money to each district based on Average Daily Membership (ADM) at each school, according to the Legislative Services Office.

Small rural schools actually have a higher allocation per ADM: they have fewer students, but still receive funds to cover standard costs, such as principal and janitorial salaries. Each school is given a set amount for these roles, and then funds are distributed as a block grant each district independently determines how to spend.

In this case, Harmony and Centennial share a principal with an elementary school in Laramie, but the state calculates money for all three schools to have a principal. That means if two schools were to close, the district would lose allocated funding for two principals.

Beyond crunching the numbers, Goldhardt said community input factored into the decision to keep Harmony and Centennial open.

“They provided some great points that hadn’t been thought of before…,” Goldhardt told the Wyoming Truth.  “It’s a great example of when people give input—it matters.… It made something come about that was a win-win for both sides.”

Stakeholders told Goldhardt that the schools are community centers in small towns. “The other part that made me happy is that these folks love their schools,” he said.

‘The reason we get up every day’

Murray, who teaches a combined kindergarten and first grade class at Harmony, spoke with families about their personal reasons for wanting the school to stay open. For example, one family noted the small class setting had helped their child, who has a speech delay, improve communication skills.

“These families are the reason we get up every day, and the reason are fighting so hard for those rural schools,” Murray said.

Additionally, Murray said students at Harmony benefit from learning about their natural environment—a place where many of them will grow up and build their lives.

“We do a lot of outdoor education in our little prairie area, because the kids are learning about where they live,” Murray said. “A lot of these kids grow up to take care of these ranches, and this is a part of them.”

Not only are there many positive reasons for keeping the rural schools open, according to Klingenberg, but there also are many negatives for elementary students if they were to be bussed to Laramie schools. 

Harmony Elementary is about 25 miles southwest of Laramie, and Centennial Elementary is about 33 miles west of Laramie. Klingenberg said her 6-year-old son would have to get on a bus at 6:15 a.m, and spend two hours each way getting to and from school.

“That’s a 10-and-a-half hour day for a child,” she said. “Most adults can’t even sustain that.”

Klingenberg remains concerned because the district’s budget deficit is an ongoing issue.

“I really hope to goodness sake that these kind of cuts don’t ever come up again with Harmony and Centennial,” she said. “However I still have a feeling they are going to be having cuts and layoffs elsewhere within the school district. That’s just painful. It’s so unfortunate.”

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