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afrank / News Record Photo/August Frank 

David King shows off the red color in a stalk of his rhubarb.

Daily attendance, activities benefit from two high schools

Numbers of students involved in activities and attending daily classes have increased in each of the two years there has been two comprehensive high schools in Gillette.

That’s the bottom line from two surveys Superintendent Alex Ayers shared with school board members this past week.

Along with average daily enrollments for school districts in Wyoming, each district also keeps track of average daily attendance. In Gillette, that number increased in 2017-18, when Thunder Basin High School opened, and again this past school year.

Ayers said he can’t attribute the increase to the change to seven-period days, although he knows it likely is a factor. He said more students may be attending their classes daily because of smaller school environments rather than one large school.

  • In 2015-16, with one high school in Gillette, the average daily attendance was 90.24%.
  • In 2016-17, that rose to 91.52%.
  • In 2017-18, when Thunder Basin opened and the district changed from its block schedule to a seven-period day schedule — a move that many students opposed at the time (based on surveys and interviews) — the daily attendance at Campbell County High School rose to 91.92%. It was 91.09% at Thunder Basin.
  • Last school year in 2018-19, that rose in both schools to 93.07% at CCHS and 92.54% at Thunder Basin.

“The trend is nice,” Ayers said. “Every percentage point is important. That’s another 10 kids on a daily basis going to seven periods for 175 days.”

Both high schools have about 1,000 students. At the end of the school year, enrollment was 987 at CCHS and 1,077 at Thunder Basin.

The whys and hows

“I can’t attribute that positive effect to the switch in schedules,” Ayers said. “But it is interesting with those changes, smaller environments, that that trend is there. ... That’s a lot of class periods.

“Obviously, something good is happening, whether it’s the culture or whatever it might be. It’s getting more kids in school on a daily basis.”

“A lot of kids, including my own kids, they really like it now,” trustee Lisa Durgin said of the seven-period schedule. “My own son said, ‘Oh, I’ve learned way more this year than I ever have.’ But he’s way more engaged, too, so it’s probably a multitude of factors.

“I just think more time in the classroom is really helping kids.”

Chairwoman Anne Ochs agreed.

“The way I figure it, is it’s almost an extra month of classes,” she said.

There were more positive trends to take away from the surveys, Ayers said.

Activity participation up

Through Wyoming High School Activities Association figures, he reported that more Gillette students are becoming involved in activities — whether academic clubs or sports — at each high school.

That was a factor school trustees pushed in 2015 when they made the decision to open a second comprehensive high school in Gillette.

  • In 2016-17, 2,007 students from CCHS were involved in activities from grades 9-12.
  • In 2017-18, with the opening of Thunder Basin, that rose slightly to 2,076 students. And in 2018-19, it fell slightly to 2,063 students. From 2016-17 to 2018-19, the number of students involved in activities increased overall 2.79%.
  • The numbers of boys and girls involved in activities in each grade also grew, especially for girls. In 2016-17, 456 boys (42.6%) and 486 girls (51.9%) were involved in activities.
  • In 2017-18, that grew to 548 boys at both high schools (49.7%) and 557 girls (57.2%).
  • This past school year, there were 609 boys (55.7%) and 631 girls (65.1%) involved in extracurricular activities.
  • Combined, 942 students (47%) were involved in activities in 2016-17 and that has grown to 1,105 (53.2%) in 2017-18 and 1,240 (60.1%) in 2018-19.
  • Overall, Ayers said, the number of students involved in activities increased 31.6% from 2016-17 to 2018-19.

Tryout sports

In athletics, where coaches cut players after tryouts — basketball, soccer and volleyball — the number of students participating in Gillette at both high schools has increased 45.5% over the past two school terms.

  • There were 124 boys and girls involved in basketball in 2016-17, and that grew to 175 in 2017-18 and fell to 173 in 2018-19.
  • There also were 98 involved in soccer in 2016-17, which grew to 144 in 2017-18 and 137 this past school year.
  • Volleyball also grew from 57 to 89 to 96 in that three-year span, respectively.
  • Overall, there were 279 involved in the three sports in 2016-17, 408 in 2017-18 and 406 this past year.

“That will go up with softball,” Ayers said about the pending addition of the sport to high school athletics in Wyoming. “That will be an interesting change.”

While the addition of girls softball at the high school level isn’t quite a done deal — one more team has to agree to play to start a season — many consider it inevitable with Cheyenne yet to vote on it and Laramie reconsidering it.

“I really like this,” Durgin said as she reviewed the numbers.

She also asked Ayers to add 2014-15 and 2015-16 information and attendance numbers.

School trustees likely will take a closer look at the seven-period day and participation in activities at a retreat in the fall.

Wright daily attendance

Wright Junior-Senior High school also saw an increase in average daily attendance over the past three years.

It finished the school year with 172 students in grades 7-12.

In 2015-16, its average daily attendance was about 91.8% of its students. That rose to 92% in 2016-17, 92.4% in 2017-18 and 93.5% this past school year.

Staffing and keeping young workers during summer a challenge

For most kids, summer is a time to enjoy the weather, be away from school and enjoy the freedom that comes with June, July and August and a three-month excuse to wake up past 11 a.m. without getting much flak.

As children grow older, summer takes on a different bent. Lunches with friends are nice, but food costs money. Need new football cleats or volleyball pads for the fall? Those cost money, too.

Summer is the season for seasonals.

Departments, agencies and businesses across Campbell County depend on a younger generation ages 15 to 21 to work throughout the summer and keep up with growing lawns, antsy and energetic elementary-age children and rambunctious kids at the pool.

Help wanted, help received

Jessica Gladson is the youth program director at the Campbell County Recreation Center.

Come summertime, Gladson’s main focus is the Rec Center’s Kids Camp, which invites hundreds of local kids to participate in activities all summer long.

To make sure Kid’s Camp runs like a well-oiled machine, Gladson needs workers. Every year, she hires anywhere from 20 to 22 camp counselors. Not all work at the same time, but she keeps that many on retainer for flexibility during summer vacation.

In 2017, Gladson didn’t have to hire a single new counselor, as all 20 came back from the previous year. In 2018, she only had to fill one position.

This year “was a struggle,” she said.

Last year, Gladson hired her final seasonal employee at the end of March. This year, she rounded out her staff the first day camp started in late May.

“I had to advertise for male counselors this year for the first time ever,” she said.

Sawley Wilde is the director of the Public Works Department for the city of Gillette. He said so far this year, applications and turnout for seasonal work has been one of the best he’s seen in a while.

That could be due to two key changes the city made to keep up with the demand for seasonals and to stay competitive in the summer job market.

“We were worried about getting applications this year because there is so much demand for other agencies,” Wilde said.

This year, the city lowered the minimum age for seasonals to 16 and they raised the hourly pay rate from $11 to $12 an hour.

Wilde also raised the rate for returning seasonals from $12 to $13 an hour. Before this year, if seasonal workers had one summer under their belt, they could earn $11.50 an hour and $12 an hour if they had two summers of experience.

Now those pay rates are $12 for new seasonals and $13 for any returning worker.

Lowering the age limit also opens up the pool of applicants Wilde can hire. The 1-6 and 17-year-olds can’t operate vehicles the 18-year-old workers can, but they can still operate equipment like mowers to help on the parks and streets crews.

Wilde said he still has a stack of applications in case he gets short on workers. It’s easy to figure out why his department is doing so well, but determining why Gladson isn’t doing as well is tougher to figure out.

Gladson thinks there are a lot of reasons, one being the new trampoline park, FlightZone, opening this summer. It’s also an overall more competitive market for summer workers because of the city’s growth, which is trending upward again after a fallout during the oil and coal busts of 2016.

“Ten years ago we didn’t have a Sonic,” she said. “We didn’t have a trampoline park. If you walk into Dairy Queen, it looks like there are 20 kids behind the counter. We have two McDonald’s, two Burger Kings. There are just a lot more places where kids can work these days.”

Fighting fires

J.R. Fox is the division chief of operations for the Campbell County Fire Department.

Every year, the department hires 10 seasonal firefighters to help with the wildfire season. Fox said the department usually receives applications potential workers from coast to coast, but relies on recruits from Casper College, which has a standout fire science program.

Fox said hiring seasonal firefighters has been a relatively normal process over the years. Last summer, the department had a handful of returning firefighters and after the BLM picked them up, the department now only has two from the previous year.

“It always seems to work out,” Fox said of the hiring process. “I wouldn’t say we have an over abundance of applicants every year. Usually, if we have six, eight, 10 openings we’re typically right on the line of what we need.”

Fox said the department is never flooded with interest, but always seems to get just enough applications to fill out a team.

Wilde said an issue he runs into at the city is not getting enough applicants at the right time. Once winter is over, his crews need to be mowing immediately. Parks crews rely on college students who aren’t out of school by May.

“We try to post those jobs in February because once April and May hit, the grass is growing,” he said.

Another issue Wilde runs into is being short-staffed near the end of summer when teens and young adults go back to school or get full-time jobs.

This week, Wilde had all 31 seasonal positions filled and a couple of employees have already left for other jobs.

Kay Friedlan, aquatics manager at the Rec Center, is in charge of hiring lifeguards at the City Pool. Friedlan said that this year has been particularly tough to hire young people to work for the summer.

“We’re just barely making it,” Friedlan said.

She has 43 lifeguards on staff, adding that hiring lifeguards can be more challenging than other seasonal workers because lifeguards require certain certifications in order to don the whistle.

The Fire Department reqiures training.

“We’re a little different (from other seasonal jobs). We do require some prerequisite training,” Fox said. “We also keep our seasonals on a two-hour call back all summer.”

That means the farthest any seasonal can travel is Casper, Rapid City, Sheridan and anywhere within a two-hour radius before they have to be back in case of a fire.

“We usually struggle to get them at the very end of May,” Friedlan said of filling out her roster of lifeguards. “It took a lot longer to get them all this year.”

Friedlan is not sure why this year has been more challenging, but the competition for the attention and time of young people likely plays a part.

“Sometimes kids have sports to play during the summer and they are still deciding if they even want to work when the summer starts,” she said.

Friedlan hires teens ages 15 to 19. Lifeguards get paid $11 an hour and can get 50-cent raises for every returning year.

Kevin Geer, the county’s parks superintendent, said he wishes he could offer that kind of pay to his summer workers. The county’s Parks Department pays $10.50 an hour.

Geer admitted that when he heard the city was raising wages for seasonals, he got a little nervous.

“I was surprised we were able to get as many kids as we did this year,” Geer said. “It seems like everyone else bumped up the pay for their kids. In past years, it has been difficult for us. We were especially worried about getting those seasonals that are 18 and older.”

Geer said it has been at least five years since the county raised wages for summer jobs, something he wants to discuss with commissioners next budget year.

Geer credits the fact that he has nearly 50% of his seasonals returning from last year as the reason he was able to get all of his 17 positions filled.

“We haven’t done anything different this year,” he said. “For whatever reason, our kids came back and enjoy the work they do with us.”


Many agencies and departments that depend on seasonal work come summertime compete for the same employees.

Geer said he heard from around the Rec Center that certain departments, like Friedlan’s lifeguards, have lost a significant number of summer workers to the new jump park, FlightZone.

Geer said he wasn’t impacted by the opening of the new trampoline park, but has heard of people leaving county jobs to work there.

Unlike the city, the county Parks Department has been hiring 16- and 17-year-olds for several years. This year, Geer got an unusually large number of applicants and even has a waiting list.

It’s not just the younger teens who are getting in on the action, either.

“This year we have three people who have retired and came back just to do something during the summer,” he said.

Geer said his usual competition is the city’s Parks Department, the Cemetery District, the Campbell County School District and other agencies that depend on a younger workforce.

“Anyone who does lawn care” is a competitor, Wilde added. “We’re all looking for those same people.”

Sometimes it can be hard to gauge the market when it comes to pay scale. Wilde said he and the city put together applications around January and February usually not knowing what their competitors are paying.

Fox said the Fire Department largely competes with the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service for summer help. In that case, a lot of firefighters and hopeful cadets will join up with those larger agencies for better pay.

Seasonals in Campbell County make $14 an hour, but the Fire Department doesn’t have any money in its budget for overtime. Agencies like the BLM and Forest Service not only can pay overtime for firefighting work, but also can pay a hazardous wage that could be up to 25% more on top of a base wage and come out to time and three-quarters for overtime.

Fox said it would be tough to raise the pay for seasonals at the county level because they make just under what a full-time firefighter starts at. If seasonal pay goes up, the whole department would essentially need raises.

Before long, Fox and the Fire Department will be bombarded with wildland fires once the summer heats up and the foliage begins to dry out. Wilde and Geer are already knee-deep in weeds, grass and other beautification efforts. The pool will soon be hot with action as temperatures reach the 80s and the Rec Center will be crawling with energetic kids all summer.

Thank goodness for seasonals.

afrank / News Record Photo/August Frank 

Trenton Viliad, 4, center front, and Riggin Jones, 4, go down the slide as Bo Pirtz, 4, left, and Jameson Stefanik watch from either side at the Children’s Center on Wednesday.

afrank / News Record Photo/August Frank 

Bees climb over each other in a crevasse of a fence in east Gillette. Angie Lynch captured most of the swarm and will introduce the bees into one of her hives.

Bus crash did not cause woman's neck, back pain, defense argues

The chronic neck and back pain that a woman claims are the result of a 2014 bus crash are actually symptoms of a degenerative disease, defense attorneys say.

In one doctor’s opinion, the only injuries Anna Mitchell suffered in the crash were a chest contusion, or bruise, and scrapes on her knees, all of which have long since healed.

Mitchell, an Aladdin resident, is suing Powder River Transportation for punitive damages. She was a passenger on one of the company’s buses that plowed into a line of cars stopped for construction on Highway 59 the morning of May 14, 2014.

Eight cars were involved in the chain-reaction crash that killed three people.

Dr. Mary Neal, an orthopedic spine surgeon from Jackson, testified for the bus company Friday in District Court.

Neal reviewed Mitchell’s medical records and examined her earlier this year. Mitchell’s X-rays and MRIs showed evidence of “pre-existing degenerative disc changes, which take more than a year to form,” Neal said.

The degeneration is responsible for Mitchell’s neck and back pain, she said.

Neal also pointed out Mitchell’s long history of complaints of neck and back pain and dozens of chiropractor visits prior to the crash. Even if Mitchell hadn’t been in the bus crash, Neal said she believes Mitchell would have ended up having surgery.

“The crash didn’t change much,” she said.

Neal said Mitchell’s two neck fusion surgeries were “unrelated” to the crash. Instead, they were a “predictable outcome” and the natural progression of symptoms that existed before the crash.

“This has nothing to do with the bus accident,” she said.

Looking at a report from Mitchell’s 2002 MRI, taken after she was rear-ended in South Dakota, and comparing it to a 2015 MRI done on Mitchell one year after the crash, Neal said she did not notice any significant differences between the two.

Neither the report from Mitchell’s emergency room visit the day of the crash, nor a report from her visit to the Walk-In Clinic a week later, mention anything about Mitchell complaining about neck or back pain.

Neal said it’s “very unlikely” that an ER doctor would miss a neck or back injury. She said it’s possible neck pain might not have set in right away, but it would have showed up within a day or two. If Mitchell had suffered a neck injury, she definitely would have noticed it when she went to the Walk-In Clinic, Neal said.

Mitchell’s headaches, which she described as being in the front of her head, were “absolutely not” a result of the degenerative disease, Neal said. While it can cause headaches, they would be in the back of the head.

Mitchell had said as long as she was doing her prescribed home exercises, she felt fine. In fall of 2017, Mitchell rode a 4-wheeler on uneven ground to run a trapline for coyotes and bobcats. She felt no back pain then.

And in the spring of 2018, she dragged an 80-pound calf into the house. Mitchell said a cow had given birth to a calf, so she got a sled, rolled the calf onto it and pulled it inside the house. She didn’t complain of any major pain then.

The trial continues Monday.