CASPER, Wyo. — Natrona County’s ambitious high school construction plan is in the hands of lawyers.
The school district intends to design high school renovations and construction for more students than what the state approved in November and can front up to $30 million to resume the process stalled since July, said Superintendent Joel Dvorak.
State officials have estimated an extra $29 million to $32 million would be needed to add space for about 500 students to the plan to renovate Natrona County and Kelly Walsh high schools and build a new, shared campus that also houses Roosevelt High School.
Dvorak said the district can generate the money through a lease-purchase agreement, when a project is completed with a loan paid over several years. At the end of the “lease” agreement, the project is turned over completely to the lessee.
Meanwhile, the district plans to seek informal review and possibly a court hearing on the decision made by the state School Facilities Commission in November.
Ian Catellier, director of the School Facilities Department, said Tuesday he’s unsure both can legally happen at the same time.
Gov. Matt Mead included $126 million for the projects in his 2013-14 biennial budget but left the details to lawmakers to sort out. The Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee will review the budget before it goes to both houses in February.
Catellier said projects tentatively funded in Mead’s budget will not begin until amounts are final after the session.
The Wyoming School Facilities Department recommended the projects be built for 3,527 students — the number projected to enroll in 2016 — and to phase construction to aid in-state contractors.
Natrona County officials said the state should plan and pay to build the high school system for 4,100 students — the number of ninth- through 12th-graders projected to enroll in 2020 — so the buildings will last at least 50 years and to avoid future construction with a higher price tag.
District officials opposed phasing the projects because the plan would put more students on the Kelly Walsh campus and would prevent schools from starting a new academy program at the same time.
Projects were put on hold in July by the state School Facilities Department to commission “educational specifications,” descriptions of the academic programming and space needed to deliver that programming. The School Facilities Commission is required to accept the “most cost-effective remedy” per changes to state law in 2011, and district officials say state law requires the commission to consider community impact in the remedy. Several city of Casper officials have said the proposed plan to move students to Kelly Walsh during renovations would be a public health and safety risk.
The commission’s decision also goes against the 2008 Wyoming Supreme Court decision referred to as Campbell IV, which requires the state to provide adequate and equitable school facilities, according to the school district’s attorney in the request for an informal hearing.
Catellier, who was appointed director in 2011, said the process — including hearings — is helping the department ferret out problems and difficulties so they can better define the method for building facilities for all.
“There’s a lot that I still am trying to grasp with history and intent,” Catellier said. “It’s a large task — it’s one I take very seriously, and it’s one I want to make sure I’m doing right.”