Laura Fowler, a music teacher at Cheyenne’s Cole Elementary from 1988 to 2019, walks past the entryway Friday, Feb. 7, 2020. One of the oldest schools in Cheyenne, Cole Elementary is slated to be replaced, and Laramie County School District 1 recently agreed to buy city-owned land across from the school to prepare for that eventuality. Wyoming Tribune Eagle/file

CHEYENNE – Although Cheyenne has some of the oldest schools in the state, the chances of improvements being made anytime soon are rapidly drying up.

Nearly 30% of Laramie County School District 1’s facilities rank in the top 20 on Wyoming’s current list of schools in the worst condition. There is a need for building renovations, or even replacement, due to factors such as age, deteriorating quality, inability to keep up with classroom capacity needs and a lack of technological updates.

Assistant Superintendent of Support Operations Dave Bartlett said this isn’t likely to be remedied for many of the schools in the near future. Since 2012, there have only been 16 schools in the district high on the needs list that were addressed.

“It’s just because the funding isn’t available that I can spend,” he said.

Hundreds of schools throughout the state require maintenance, though, which makes it less surprising that LCSD1 hasn’t renovated or rebuilt a large portion of its schools. But what’s more concerning to Bartlett is the clear decrease in the ability of state government to administer substantial and steady funding to schools.

Whether that funding be for educational programs or building facilities, the state budget is shrinking across all sectors.

A decade ago, the state’s biennium budget for school facilities would fund upward of 25 major renovation and construction projects across the state. In the upcoming 2023-24 biennium budget, according to Bartlett, it will most likely fund two.

The budget isn’t the only changing factor contributing to how schools in the district receive financial support. This fall, there will be a substantial adjustment to the framework of the Educational Facilities Condition Index (FCI).

The Wyoming Legislature’s Select Committee on School Facilities is updating the index’s methodology, which is essentially the way in which schools are ranked by the state in order to award money. There are multiple elements that influence the methodology, but the two main ones are capacity and condition.

Capacity refers to the size of the classroom and how many students are within each one. It is based on five-year population growth projections, which gives administrators the capacity calculation methodology.

Economic impacts or events such as the pandemic do not factor into the enrollment year projections, but they still contribute to the changing school populations.

If a school is over capacity, there are too many students in a designated space, and often this negatively impacts a healthy student-to-teacher ratio, as well. Schools in LCSD1 struggle with this issue, just as much as with deteriorating conditions.

Classrooms in grades K-6 in Cheyenne are operating at 103% capacity, and grades 9-12 are at almost 101% capacity, according to the latest studies by the Wyoming Department of Education.

The schools struggling with the highest capacity are in the Central triad, grades K-6. Take away the averages, and those facilities are at 110% capacity. One of the remedies LCSD1 support operations is working to develop is a new school for grades 5-6 called Coyote Ridge Elementary, north of Dell Range Boulevard and east of Powderhouse Road, but that will still take millions of dollars to build.

Besides having to deal with crowded classrooms, high capacity also pushes students out of the main buildings and into modulars on school property. If that doesn’t fix capacity issues, sometimes students must go to a school outside of their neighborhood.

“We feel like this is a poor remedy for kids,” Bartlett said. “We want kids in their neighborhood school or adjacent.”

He said there is a better quality of student life when children are spending less time on buses, have the ability to walk to class and to attend a school with their neighborhood peers into high school.

Outside of capacity issues, the other main factor in the methodology is condition. This is a prevalent problem for schools in LCSD1, due to the age of most buildings in Cheyenne.

All but one of the schools at the top of the needs index were built before 1970. The highest on the list, Clawson Elementary School, was built in 1939.

Condition is more complicated than capacity, and addressed less often. Addressing the condition of a building requires maintenance and renovation, instead of adjusting the size of classes or putting students in a different school.

“They walk through every building in the state,” Bartlett said, “and they score them based on different components. Could be heating, cooling, the roof and access.”

The scoring can sometimes lead to confusion, because there are odd adjustments on the needs index that might pull a building that requires larger renovations down lower on the list.

For example, when a building has air conditioning and it’s not working, then it is scored one out of four. But if the building simply has no air conditioning, then it is not scored at all in that component. This means a building that needs maintenance goes higher up on the index than one that needs to have the resource put in.

Fixing one maintenance issue in a school that needs an entire renovation will lower its chances of being addressed as a whole. At this point, Bartlett said building new schools is more feasible than renovating older facilities.

“We take care of broken, damaged and vandalized things,” he said. “We’ll take care of a leaky roof. We do all those things. But I probably won’t go in and put a million-dollar roof on a building we think will potentially go away in two or three years. I’d rather take that million dollars and put it into, say, Dildine Elementary.”

These kinds of opportunity cost analyses are why the methodology is being restructured. Condition and capacity will still drive the index, but which one has precedence and how the buildings are rated will change.

Bartlett has helped the committee, as well as other leaders in the district, to understand how these factors impact schools across the state and in LCSD1. State Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, even told Barlett during a committee meeting that it was “eye-opening” to understand how schools that clearly needed to be addressed weren’t addressed due to the rating and methodology on the index.

The needs index is supposed to be updated every four years, and the last list was published in 2016. It will be published this fall after consideration from the committee, and most likely will readjust schools in the district.

Regardless of whether LCSD1 receives a large sum of money from the state this biennium due to changes in the list, there is a plan in place to develop and improve schools across the district. It was created by the administration in 2019 to prepare for certain schools, such as Hebard Elementary or Carey Junior High, moving up on the needs index.

“The system is somewhat reactionary,” Bartlett said. “You have to have a poor facility school, or you have to be overcrowded before you’re going to trigger a solution.”

Bartlett wants LCSD1 to have the solutions ready when the trigger is pulled. Some of the projects he is focused on for the next 18 months are finishing up the East High School swimming pool and then starting development of the new Coyote Ridge Elementary School. The rest is primarily maintenance on roofs, boilers or electrical upgrades.

But past the 18-month mark, as Cheyenne grows, there are many projects considered for the betterment of the school district. There is even a possibility of creating a quad system in Cheyenne and building a fourth main high school.

No matter the funding, though, or the change of methodology, Bartlett said district officials are prepared and looking to the future for students in Cheyenne.

“We’re ready to go,” he said.

Jasmine Hall is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s education reporter. She can be reached by email at jhall@wyomingnews.com or by phone at 307-633-3167. Follow her on Twitter @jasminerhphotos and on Instagram @jhrose25.

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