The federal Head Start program for poor families will get a new start now that the Natrona County School District board of trustees on Monday approved the sale of the former Mills Elementary School to the Town of Mills for a third of its appraised value.

"The building we have is overflowing," said Mary Kugler, area coordinator for Wyoming Child and Family Development, which oversees Head Start for Natrona County.

The school district has mothballed and closed about a half-dozen schools in the past couple of years and put some of them up for sale, including Mills Elementary at 420 Second St.

A committee that supports Head Start saw an opportunity and began talking with Mills officials about acquiring the former elementary school, Kugler said.

"We're hoping for a partnership that we could maybe separate the building and they create a community center, which the Town of Mills really needs, and we would have an opportunity to renovate and make classrooms that would allow us to expand Head Start services in Natrona County," she said.

Head Start is a comprehensive program for families in poverty, so children from those backgrounds gain a level footing with other children, Kugler said. "We provide a free pre-school experience."

The program offers referrals for medical and dental services, screenings for developmental delays, and support for the whole family, she added. "Hopefully it's the hand that they need to get back on the road."

In the 3- to 5-year-old age group, the program has 124 family participants; and 54 families in the 0- to 3-year-old Early Head Start program, Kugler said.

There's also a waiting list because the current building at 301 West B St., cannot accommodate more families, she said.

While the program is federally funded, Head Start intends to raise money from private sources in the community, Kugler said.

The building will need some serious renovations including a new fire suppression system, a commercial-quality kitchen, restrooms, she said.

During its regular meeting, the school district's board of trustees acknowledged the importance of Head Start, Mills' need for a community center, and the district's need to reduce its inventory of buildings.

In October, the board of trustees voted to close or mothball four schools and other buildings mostly because of declining enrollment. A year before that, the board voted to close five schools.

Despite the need to reduce the inventory, some trustees balked at the Town of Mills' bid -- the only bid the district received -- to buy the former elementary school for $75,000, far less than its appraisd value of $257,000.

Clark Jensen said the offer was not ideal, but the trustees should approve the sale.

Debbie McCullar said selling it was a bad decision and she proposed re-opening the bidding process.

Dave Applegate said the school has a number of easement issues that probably discouraged other bidders.

The district also has to spend $30,000 to $50,000 a year just to maintain the abandoned building, so the sale even at the cut-rate price was worth it, he said.

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