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With Uncertainty Looming, Schools Wonder About The Future Education Quality In Wyoming

Catherine Wheeler
Wyoming Public Radio

In the final hours of this year's legislative session, lawmakers failed to pass a school finance bill that would have added cuts in the middle of the state's two-year budget cycle.

The bill died because the House and Senate couldn't agree on numerous points, including the state attempting to limit how districts could spend federal aid and revenue choices.

But that news came after districts across the state had already begun preparing their budgets for the 2021-2022 school year, with the idea that they'd be asked to cut around 10 percent.

Dennis Holmes, an assistant superintendent in the Campbell County School District said, they had been thinking about cuts and efficiencies before the legislative session started.

"Our dollar figure was right around $11 million in possible reduction. That's pretty significant," he said.

Holmes said the final events of the 66th Legislature came as quite the surprise. But despite no new mandated cuts, the district is moving ahead and proposing a reduction of around $4 million for its next school year. Some reductions include the numbers of staff on the summer lawns crew and reductions to the district's wellness incentive program for staff.

Holmes said a lot of it is due to the district's decrease in enrollment.

"We just really went through everything with a fine-tooth comb and tried to figure out where can we be more efficient and how can we put ourselves in a better position for what still could happen in the future?" he said.

Many districts across the state are facing similar circumstances.

"Those districts that have seen declining enrollment and anticipate continued declines in their enrollment, they have to make cuts, they have no choice about making those kinds of cuts," said Brian Farmer, executive director of the Wyoming School Boards Association.

Farmer said schools dealing with enrollment challenges have a lot to juggle, especially since districts are only allowed to save up to 15 percent of their operating budgets and also are trying to figure how to spend their federal aid.

"So you really just have a very challenging environment to make budgets and make decisions around this, unlike any time that we've really ever seen in public schools," he said.

Natrona County School District Superintendent Michael Jennings said his district is in a similar position to Campbell with declining enrollment and will likely have budget cuts next year.

"In fact, Natrona County, and the school districts across the state, in general, have been experiencing a decline in revenue since 2015. So, it's not new to us," Jennings said.

Campbell County's Dennis Holmes said he hopes these cuts are proactive.

"Ultimately, the hope is that there's some change or additional funding sources, so that we don't all fall off that proverbial cliff," he said. "But you hope that things change direction and that we don't end up in that position where we have to make a lot of reductions."

But other districts are choosing not to cut, like Sheridan County School District Number One, which covers towns like Big Horn, Ranchester and Dayton.

"We decided to hold off for now, because we feel like we're pretty much bare bones where we're at, with the cuts we've made over the last, say, 10 years," said the superintendent, Pete Kilbride.

Kilbride said that means they filled some vacant positions. He said future cuts could lead to some interesting discussions.

"If it comes to that, and we were told to take a 10 percent cut, I guess my only question is going to be let us know what area you don't want taught," Kilbride said. "So if it means activities or athletic programs, then I guess we'll do away with that. If it means not teaching science, then we'll follow suit."

Farmer, the executive director of the Wyoming School Boards Association, said that's a big question popping up across the state.

"What do we expect a graduate of a Wyoming high school to know and be able to do by the time that they graduate from high school?" he asked.

Farmer said groups are working on getting those answers. These include the Wyoming State Board of Education's initiative Profile of a Graduateand Gov. Mark Gordon's new advisory groupto work on innovation in the state's K-12 education system.

"Now is a great time to be asking lots of questions about what we expect from education and to think about how we can make changes in the delivery of education," Farmer said.

But districts and school advocates would also like the answer to another question: how are they going to fund education in the future?

Corrected: June 14, 2021 at 9:37 AM MDT
This story has been updated to correct the group in charge of the initiative Profile of a Graduate from the Wyoming Department of Education to the Wyoming State Board of Education.
Catherine Wheeler comes to Wyoming from Kansas City, Missouri. She has worked at public media stations in Missouri and on the Vox podcast "Today, Explained." Catherine graduated from Fort Lewis College with a BA in English. She recently received her master in journalism from the University of Missouri. Catherine enjoys cooking, looming, reading and the outdoors.
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