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With school funds slashed, districts ask legislators for answers

May 27, 2016 By Christina George, Staff Writer

K-12 education spending in Wyoming has been trimmed by $36 million by the Wyoming Legislature this year, and Fremont County School districts will be touched significantly by the reductions.

Decreases in state revenues resulting from the statewide energy industry slump are blamed for the cutbacks.

For Lander schools, the cutback means $610,000 less for the next two fiscal years. Wyoming Indian schools face a $300,000 hit for the same time frame.

On the other side of Fremont County, Shoshoni anticipates a $75,000 reduction in the next year.

The three school districts and Arapahoe have joined forces with more than two dozen other Wyoming school districts in requesting a meeting with legislators to talk about the cut.

Letter to lawmakers

The group of school districts sent a letter earlier this month to several legislative committees asking the Legislature to work with school districts in resolving the "critical school funding issue."

"Without early resolution of this matter, districts are unable to accurately budget given the current uncertainty," the letter states. "As a result of the inability to reasonably predict the percentage that may or may not be cut from year to year, districts must react rather than properly plan for the needs of their respective students.

"This has obvious negative effects on the ability to deliver an equal opportunity to a quality education."

The letter is also signed by leaders of the Wyoming Association of School Administrators, the Wyoming Education Association and the Wyoming School Boards Association.

The school districts asked for a response in time to be placed on the agenda of the Joint Education Interim Committee meeting scheduled for June 13-14.

"My hope is we all continue to work together to find solutions to continue funding the student growth we have seen over the past few years," said Fremont County School District 1 superintendent, Dave Barker.

"With personnel expenses near 80 percent of budgets, there is only so many reductions districts can make before programs and people are affected."

ECA

The Wyoming Legislature in the 2016 session cut the external cost adjustment, or ECA, which is an adjustment to the funding model for inflation. Funding decreased for 1 percent for fiscal year 2017 and another 1.5 percent for fiscal year 2018.

According to the letter, legislators created unjustified disparities among school districts by not following requirements regarding the computation and application of the ECA.

"As a result of recently enacted cuts, the districts are facing serious and substantial cuts to the funding needed to provide equal educational opportunities for their students," the letter reads.

The school districts further assert that although all 48 school districts in Wyoming are forced to scale back, some have to make harsher cuts than others.

Barker said the letter serves to inform legislators of the concerns districts have with lack of consistency in applying the ECA to the funding model.

"The model is set up so that districts who lose students will lose funding," the Lander administrator said.

"Thus, any cuts on top of this loss of revenue is hitting districts doubly hard."

'Best possible'

Fremont County School District 24 (Shoshoni) superintendent Bruce Thoren said the letter advocates for education.

"In the job that I am in, and what I am hired to do is to provide the best possible education that we can provide for our kids, and so I felt that letter advocated for our kids," Thoren said.

School District 14 (Wyoming Indian) superintendent Owen St. Clair shared similar sentiment.

"I signed the letter in a concerted effort among most school superintendents in the state of Wyoming to protect future funding for all of Wyoming schools," St. Clair said.

Reductions

Barker said Lander was able to trim expenditures for building and district supply and material budgets, and also maintain spending levels.

"We will be working this summer and fall to look at other areas to cut, possibly through attrition of personnel," he said. "Specific cuts will depend on student enrollment and actual funding."

Thoren said an unexpected uptick in student enrollment will help offset some funding decrease in Shoshoni. The district isn't cutting staff or programs at this time, but Thoren said positions opening due to retirements will not be filled.

"We are looking at how we can backfill those positions," he said.

St. Clair said his district is trying to protect its budget "in the best way that we can, so if changes are made, they are very minimal."

Education not alone

K-12 education wasn't the only to see cuts this year. Legislators slashed spending and programs in the face of what some say could be several painful years of low revenues due to what's happening in the energy sector.

Barker said he agrees education can share in the downturn economy, but that it is built into the model through student enrollment.

"When districts lose students, they lose money," he said.

St. Clair said K-12 education, "just like everybody else in the state," is hoping Wyoming's resources rebound soon.

"We have been very fortunate. This is a little bit of a downslide, but I am sure the state of Wyoming will bounce back and be stronger than ever," he added.

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