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Future School Budget Cuts Bring Up Debates On Activities Funding

MR. Pockets, via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

In 2020, Governor Mark Gordon asked school districts across Wyoming to start considering what a 10 percent funding cut would look like. And even more recently lawmakers are suggesting cuts around 6.5 percent.

With the budget season approaching, schools are trying to decide what they can and can't live without.

Jay Harnack, superintendent of Sublette County School District #1, said the district's finance committee has been thinking about all the options.

"I think they just sort of sit down and try to come up with a balanced approach that would be as much as possible not impact the classroom. And I think that's what the proposed budget reduction plan reflects," he said.

In Pinedale, the district is proposing a $1.1 million cut. Harnack said this includes cutting a couple of sports teams, like men's swimming and the nordic ski team.

He said out of the district's $17 million budget, activities usually only take up about $600,000 dollars, or about three percent.

"It's the budget line item in our general fund that outspends greater than any other budget, in terms of what it's funded and what we spent," he said.

But parents, community members, and students expressed outrage and suggested other options like community fundraising or a pay-to-play model where students would need to pay fees to participate in activities. After the public input, the school board agreed to postpone any action.

Sublette #1 isn't the only school district in the state considering such options.

But Wyoming High School Activities Association (WHSAA) Commissioner Ron Laird said it's important to remember, like in Pinedale, these activities are usually a small line on a budget and cutting them won't solve many problems. But it does create a big reaction.

"It seems like every time, historically, a school wants to get rid of -whether it's an activity, a music program, or a sport or whatever-that's the one that fills the boardroom," he said. "When they go, a lot of emotion gets involved in those and sometimes academic cuts, they don't even show up for the school board."

Laird said schools have learned how they can save money on activities without making big cuts due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One example is how schools have adjusted their schedules to move away from costly overnight trips.

"This can work this way. It's not ideal. We don't maybe like we're not playing all the schools or teams that we'd like to play, but it's going to help us keep it going," he said.

Laird said pay-to-play models that are being suggested can bring up concerns about equity, meaning there are some families who cannot afford to pay for their children to participate in activities.

"If it's set up in a pay-to-play way, I think then you get into the haves and have-nots," he said. "And unfortunately, a lot of the have-nots are some of our students that need activities the most. It gives them an opportunity to, you know, to be a part of a team and to have a safe haven. And a lot of the coaches become great role models for those students. And it's really something that they need."

Wyoming School Boards Association Executive Director Brian Farmer said how the state funds education will have to change in the long-term but for now districts will have to adjust until lawmakers figure out how to fund education.

This will all eventually lead into a bigger conversation about what residents and policymakers think Wyoming education should provide, he said.

"We have created a system in Wyoming to be proud of. So I know that as the legislature struggles with questions of appropriate funding, it's a question of how do we continue to, to provide this program that we've built," Farmer said.

He added similar conversations about the cost of administrators and staffing are likely to come up as well. It's a conversation that's been ongoing for years but will finally have to be resolved.

This story's audio has been updated to make a correct to the Sublette #1's budget for sports and acitivities from $600 to $600,000. Wyoming Public Radio regrets the error. 

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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